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International relations

Zoom blocks, then reinstates, Tiananmen activists' accounts

Wang Dan labels shutdown as 'infringement of America's national interest'

Student protesters arrive at Tiananmen Square to join other pro-democracy demonstrators in May 1989.   © Reuters

PALO ALTO, U.S. -- California-based videoconferencing company Zoom Video Communications temporarily blocked the account of a human rights group that used the platform to stage an online commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on Chinese pro-democracy protesters.

The event took place May 31 with about 250 participants. Activists and scholars gave lectures, and more than 4,000 people listened in. The commemoration was organized by California-based Humanitarian China, which said that "a significant proportion of attendees were from China" and that its account was temporarily blocked in early June.

Zhou Fengsuo, one of Humanitarian China's founders, took part in the Tiananmen protests as a student. He told Nikkei on Thursday that repeated logins to the group's Zoom account used for the event failed for a few days starting Sunday -- a week after the meeting -- and that the company did not respond to inquiries.

A Zoom spokesperson told Nikkei that "like any global company, Zoom must comply with laws in the countries where we operate." The spokesperson acknowledged that several conferences with participants from China and overseas were affected and said that "it is not in Zoom's power to change the laws of governments opposed to free speech."

"We regret that a few recent meetings with participants both inside and outside of China were negatively impacted and important conversations were disrupted," the spokesperson said.

In a blog post Thursday, Zoom said that it was notified by the Chinese government about four large, public June 4 commemorations on Zoom that were being publicized on social media and that Beijing demanded that the company terminate the meetings and the host accounts.

"Our response should not have impacted users outside of mainland China," Zoom said, acknowledging the "two mistakes" of suspending or terminating host accounts in Hong Kong and the U.S. and shutting down the meetings instead of blocking participants by country.

The response failed to appease affected Chinese dissidents.

"It is impossible for Zoom to get rid of responsibility for such behavior with a statement," said Wang Dan, another prominent U.S.-based veteran of Tiananmen, in an e-mailed note. "American businesses should abide by the laws and social norms of the United States. Any action that violates the liberal democratic system for their own business profit is an infringement of America's national interest and people's lives."

Lee Cheuk-yan, a former Hong Kong legislator whose Zoom account was also temporarily suspended, told public broadcaster RTHK that he was asking for a refund of his subscription and urging other city residents to avoid using Zoom.

"It's very obviously they are kowtowing to the pressure from China," he said.

In its statement, Zoom said that going forward it "will not allow requests from the Chinese government to impact anyone outside of mainland China."

The company also said it is developing technology over the next several days that will enable it to remove or block participants based on geography. This will let Zoom comply with requests from local authorities without shutting down entire conversations, it explained.

Many American information technology companies do not make their services available in China or provide separate versions when they do. Zoom reported revenue of $328.16 million for the first quarter ended April 30, with the Asia-Pacific region accounting for less than 10%.

Zoom has research and development centers in China but plans to set up more in such places such as the U.S. city of Pittsburgh, possibly leading to an eventual separation of the services between the two countries.

The company, founded in 2011 by China-born engineer Eric Yuan, has come under American and Chinese scrutiny in recent months.

Service was temporarily blocked in China around last fall as the trade war raged. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Zoom a "Chinese entity" this year after the company admitted "mistakenly" routing call data through China for even non-China users. The company said then that it would "prevent these kinds of problems in the future."

Zoom is a Nasdaq-listed American company. Yuan has blogged that he became a U.S. citizen in July 2007 and has "lived happily in America since 1997."

Additional reporting by Zach Coleman and Kenji Kawase in Hong Kong.

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