The video-conferencing app so popular during the coronavirus epidemic is best known here for remote office meetings or checking in with Grandma. But in China it has proved to be something much more: a ladder over the Great Firewall. Citizens were able to anonymously access calls including content scrubbed from other platforms — such as a vigil organized by former student leader Zhou Fengsuo to commemorate the lives lost during the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. Until China caught on.
Mr. Zhou’s account was suspended days after the commemoration; days before that, a separate commemoration was cut off midstream when the account of host Wang Dan was deactivated; weeks earlier, a Hong Kong politician named Lee Cheuk-yan met the same fate minutes before he was set to stream an activist talk. None of these individuals live in China: Two are located in the United States, and the last in Hong Kong. Yet when Chinese government officials asked Zoom to remove them from the service, as the company now acknowledges occurred, Zoom complied.
Zoom, headquartered in San Jose but with product development largely in China, has now apologized — not for censoring within China but for censoring outside of it, too. The company’s action appeared to help the Xi regime achieve an early end to the “one country, two systems” principle in Hong Kong. And in the United States, it was stealing from dissidents the freedom they gained when they chose to come here. That’s outrageous, and contrary to any idea of reciprocity in international relations. Certainly, our government doesn’t condition Chinese firms’ ability to operate here on imposing our principles on the citizens of their own nation, or any other.
Zoom promises to tweak its systems to restrict participants from meetings by geography. This may reassure people beyond China’s borders that the platform is no longer so willing to serve as an exportation vessel for that nation’s authoritarianism — though concerns remain about about whether Zoom is routing encryption keys through China and exposing users to spying. Yet it does little for Chinese people themselves, whom the platform will still presumably censor just as the government requests: “Like any global company, Zoom must comply with laws in the countries where we operate,” a spokesman told The Post.
This, of course, is the core concern — that any U.S. company that seeks to operate in China won’t be allowed to do so according to U.S. values. “It is not in Zoom’s power,” the spokesman also told The Post, “to change the laws of governments opposed to free speech.” It is within Zoom’s power, however, to decide whether it will obey.