Justice Department officials brought criminal charges on Friday against a Zoom executive for allegedly working with President Xi Jinping’s government to shut down calls as well as accounts that ran afoul of stringent censorship requirements, including commemorations of the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy activists in Tiananmen Square. The executive, Xinjiang Jin, was based in China as Zoom’s liaison with that nation’s law enforcement and intelligence services — except here, liaising allegedly included monitoring sensitive discussions of “Hong Kong demonstrations, illegal religions” and more, as well as passing on user data. A number of those affected (fewer than 10, Zoom says in a blog post) were living outside China. Some were dissidents now in the United States.
Zoom has cooperated with the investigation, fired the involved employees and launched an internal probe of its own. The bottom line of its response: Restrictions by which Zoom abides within China shouldn’t result in restrictions on those outside China. Obviously this is true. But it also misses part of point: While the exportation of China’s repression is indeed a worldwide threat no U.S. business should enable, China’s repression within China is also a travesty. Zoom, pointing to its “Government Requests Guide” as a bulwark against state overreach, claims that promoting free expression is part of its mission — and that its task is to balance “compliance with local laws even as Zoom seeks to promote the open exchange of ideas.” Yet all U.S. companies in the Chinese market face a crucial question: Is such an “even as” actually possible?
Different firms have come to different conclusions. Facebook doesn’t exist in China; Google pulled out in 2010 but briefly explored a return in recent years, arguing that it could make the flow of information in the nation at least marginally freer. Apple very much does exist in China, and it justifies its presence by explaining that it protects privacy more carefully than domestic companies. Zoom, similarly, might insist that it allows for connections to the outside world for those behind the Great Firewall who otherwise would go without.
These arguments are rarely convincing: U.S. companies operating in China must make the case that their positive impact on civil liberties is enough to compensate for their complicity in the abuse of those same liberties. That’s a high bar, but at the least it requires these firms standing up for human rights wherever possible — and laying out lines that they refuse to cross. So far, Zoom has shown that it is willing to do a lot to aid the Chinese government, and little to push back against it. That fails the test.