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Zoom Apologizes For Blocking Accounts Of U.S.-Based Chinese Activists


Everyone seems to be teleconferencing on Zoom these days. The number of people using it has soared from a few million to a few hundred million during the pandemic. Now the company is being criticized for how it buckled under political pressure from China. NPR's John Ruwitch reports.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Zoom did an extraordinary thing this week. It admitted that it blocked the accounts of three users based outside of mainland China after coming under pressure from the Chinese government. It then apologized, reinstated the accounts and said it would never let requests from the Chinese government impact anyone outside mainland China again. But for some, the damage was done. Lee Cheuk-yan is a former Hong Kong lawmaker and veteran democracy activist. In May, he organized a series of weekly talks on Zoom entitled, is China's autocratic regime a threat to the world? The first two came off without a hitch, but before the third one in late May, he says Zoom blocked him.

LEE CHEUK-YAN: If you said that you follow the law of the country but that country suppressed free speech - so which side are you on, free speech or suppression of free speech?

RUWITCH: Lee is asking Zoom for a refund and calling for a boycott. The company's travails highlight the high wire act that firms with one foot in China and another in the West increasingly have to perform. Its business in the West has skyrocketed during the pandemic, but it has a substantial R & D team in China. In its statement, Zoom also admitted to shutting down meetings around the anniversary of the June 4 crackdown on student-led protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The Chinese government says those meetings were illegal in China.

To avoid similar problems in the future, Zoom is working out a way to remove or block participants based on geography. But that brings up other thorny problems. Mary Gallagher is a professor at the University of Michigan. She wonders what might happen if she has to teach her course on China under communism via Zoom. The class involves discussion of the Tiananmen crackdown and other sensitive episodes from China's recent past. What if some of her students are in China?

MARY GALLAGHER: That would then mean that the students who are enrolled in classes at an American university but are based in China may not be able to access that material.

RUWITCH: William Kirby, a Chinese history professor at Harvard who also teaches at the Business School, says Zoom has work to do.

WILLIAM KIRBY: Incomplete, that's the grade I give them. Cobbling together a few statements, you know, in a crisis atmosphere is one thing.

RUWITCH: How they act going forward is another.

John Ruwitch, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.