Zoom shuts accounts of activists holding Tiananmen Square and Hong Kong events

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Originally published by The Guardian on June 11, 2020

Three prominent human rights activists have accused Zoom of disrupting or shutting down their accounts because they were linked to events to mark the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre or were to discuss China’s measures to exert control over Hong Kong.

Lee Cheuk Yan, a veteran activist with the Hong Kong Alliance, which organises the city’s annual Tiananmen Square vigil, said his account was shut down in May before he was to host a Zoom event on an extradition billthat caused mass anti-government protests in Hong Kong last year. Lee said he purchased a subscription to the platform in an effort to get access, but his account remained blocked.

“I demanded an answer from Zoom but so far they haven’t given me an answer,” Lee told the Guardian. “It’s very unusual that a consumer can’t reopen their account. So the only explanation is that it’s politically motivated.”

Unlike several other western platforms, Zoom is not blocked in China, which is partly why China-focused activists have hosted events on it.

“I was warned about using Zoom before, because it can be accessed in China, but that’s why they chose it. We want people to be able to see it in China,” said Lee. He said he had been able to told two other events on the conferencing app earlier in May.

Zhou Fengsuo, a former protest leader at Tiananmen demonstrations, said his account was shut down in early June after he hosted an online memorial on 31 May for the anniversary of the 4 June 1989 military crackdown on pro-democracy protests in the square in central Beijing.

“A significant proportion of attendees were from China. Our conference provided many the opportunity to connect with activists abroad for the first time,” said Zhou’s group Humanitarian China, adding that 250 people joined the event through Zoom while 4,000 watched it live through social media.

The organisation said that after it was locked out of the account on 7 June, repeated attempts to log in failed and queries to Zoom went unanswered. Zhou’s account has now been reinstated.

“It seems possible Zoom acted on pressure from the CCP to shut down our account. If so, Zoom is complicit in erasing the memories of the Tiananmen massacre in collaboration with an authoritarian government,” the group said.

Wang Dan, a former student protest leader at Tiananmen, said a Zoom event he held on 3 June to commemorate the anniversary was shut down twice.

Zoom said in a statement that it “must comply with laws in the countries where we operate”. It said: “We regret that a few recent meetings with participants both inside and outside of China were negatively impacted and important conversations were disrupted.” 

Zoom added that it was not in the company’s power “to change the laws of governments opposed to free speech”. It said it was “committed to modifying its processes to further protect its users from those who wish to stifle their communications”.

Wang and Lee’s events were hosted outside of mainland China, and Zhou is based in the US.

Zoom, which has surged in popularity during the Covid-19 pandemic, has come under scrutiny owing to security concerns. 

Chen Yunfei, an activist based in Sichuan who participated in the 1989 protests as a student, spoke at the online Tiananmen memorial hosted by Zhou’s group. Chen was detained later that day and released on 5 June.

PEN America denounced Zoom for bowing to the Chinese government. The group’s CEO, Suzanne Nossel, said in a statement: “Zoom portends to be the platform of choice for companies, school systems and a wide range of organisations that need a virtual way to communicate, especially amid global lockdown. But it can’t serve that role and act as the long arm of the Chinese government. You don’t get to have it both ways.”Advertisement

Frances Eve, a deputy director of research at Chinese Human Rights Defenders , said: “Zoom must stop enabling government suppression of free expression rights.” She said the company must “clarify its internal processes that allowed the Chinese government to quickly have it censor activists”.

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