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A prominent Chinese activist based in New York says Zoom canceled his account at the behest of the Chinese government after he held a virtual conference to commemorate the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Zhou Fengsuo, the founder of the U.S. nonprofit Humanitarian China and a student leader at the Tiananmen protests in 1989, organized a meeting using Zoom’s video conferencing tool on June 4.
About 250 people attended, including a number from China, including the mother of one of the students who was killed in the massacre.
Zhou said he chose Zoom, which is based in Silicon Valley, because it was one service that was available in China and it wouldn’t require participants there to try and get around the Great Firewall, China’s massive online censorship system.
“We were anxious, expecting that it could go down anytime,” Zhou told VICE News. “But we were excited that many from China were able to hear us and the Tiananmen mothers for the first time. The technology part ran really very smoothly across different platforms, we were planning to use it for other activities.”
The conference took place without a problem, but three days later, on June 7, Zhou’s account was locked without warning. Zoom failed to respond to his emails and he was left in the dark about the account shut down.
But late on Wednesday, after VICE News and other media outlets contacted Zoom, Zhou’s account was suddenly reinstated, and the company issued the following statement.
“Just like any global company, we must comply with applicable laws in the jurisdictions where we operate. When a meeting is held across different countries, the participants within those countries are required to comply with their respective local laws. We aim to limit the actions we take to those necessary to comply with local law and continuously review and improve our process on these matters. We have reactivated the US-based account,” Zoom said in an emailed statement.
Zoom failed to respond when asked if Zhou’s account suspension had been an error, and how that error had happened.
But Zhou is clear about why he thinks Zoom deactivated his account.
“Zoom was acting on behalf of CCP’s China by canceling my account. It gave out a blank statement saying that it was acting in accordance with local law,” Zhou told VICE News. “But it was imposing Beijing’s censorship on Humanitarian China, a U.S-based organization. But it did admit that this was done intentionally.”
Zhou says Zoom’s statement only raised more questions, such as how Zoom knew who was participating in the call, whether other accounts were targeted as a result of taking part in the conference, and what information about the call the company shared with the Chinese government.
“Silencing people who are simply and peacefully sharing their political views is a particularly odious violation of human rights,” Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, told VICE News.
Zoom, which has become a hugely popular service during the coronavirus lockdown, is based in Silicon Valley, but an April report from the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab found that it owned three subsidiaries in China, used servers based in China, and had a 700-strong workforce there that could make it "responsive to pressure from Chinese authorities.”
The company has admitted its links to China and it was also forced to admit that some Zoom calls are routed through China, even when all participants were located outside the country.
Zoom’s sudden popularity exposed major shortfalls in its privacy and security, and the company’s CEO Eric Yuan promised to beef up security measures with proper end-to-end encryption. But that feature won’t be rolled out for free calls because Yuan said he wants to cooperate with law enforcement and allow them to monitor what’s happening on his platform. Zhou told VICE News that he has a paid account.
What concerns Zhou most is that Zoom may have handed over information about conference participants, a number of whom were dialling in from China.
“It was the first time that such a comprehensive representation of Tiananmen legacy could participate in the same conference because there was no geographic separation,” Zhou said.
Among those speaking who may have triggered alerts in Beijing was Zhan Xiangling, the co-founder of the Tiananmen Mother’s group, whose son was killed during the massacre. Zhan told the conference that 31 years later authorities are still tracking her movements and monitoring her communications.
“Although the government has severely repressed us, we are not afraid, We must persevere,” Zhan told the attendees.
Cover: Zoom/Zhou Fengsuo