Chinese student leaders, left to right: Chai Ling, Wang Dan, Feng Congde and Li Lu in 1989
Chinese student leaders, left to right: Chai Ling, Wang Dan, Feng Congde and Li Lu in 1989 © Reuters

Zoom disabled the accounts of a group of Chinese dissidents in the US after they used its video conference service to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Zoom’s role in shutting down the meeting, which was hosted and organised by activists in the US but included participants dialling in from China, will increase fears about the platform’s security and how it will respond to government censorship requests.

Zoom’s video chat service has exploded in popularity since lockdowns were introduced across the globe to slow the spread of Covid-19. The company, which is listed on Nasdaq, has a large operation in China: almost a third of its workers are based in the country and much of its research and development takes place there. It also has servers in China.

The annual Tiananmen Square commemoration was hosted on Zoom by a group of Chinese activists in the US, including Wang Dan, one of the most prominent leaders of the pro-democracy student movement that was crushed by the Chinese army in Beijing on June 4 1989.

Mr Wang’s team shared screenshots with the Financial Times of his Zoom call being cancelled twice and two of his team’s paid Zoom accounts being disabled. The cancellations started just as the meetings were due to begin on the morning of June 4 in Washington, where Mr Wang is based. He added that as of Thursday, the accounts remained disabled.

Zoom later suggested that the Tiananmen commemoration had violated local laws, saying that: “We strive to limit actions taken to those necessary to comply with local law . . . We regret that a few recent meetings with participants both inside and outside of China were negatively impacted and important conversations were disrupted.”

There are no Chinese laws against memorialising the Tiananmen massacre or criticising China’s ruling party, although Beijing has punished citizens commemorating Tiananmen by charging them with “inciting subversion of state power”, or the catch-all charge of “provoking quarrels”.

“31 years ago, we were on the streets fighting the Chinese Communist party police; today, these kinds of confrontations have shifted to the realm of cyber space,” wrote Mr Wang on Facebook. “Through destroying freedom of speech online, the CCP seriously threatens freedom of speech and democracy globally.”

A May 27, 1989 photo of student leader Wang Dan in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, calling for a city wide march
A May 27 1989 photo of student leader Wang Dan in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, calling for a city wide march © AP

Mr Wang’s team attributed the cancellations to hacking attempts or orders from the Chinese Communist party. Beijing has always sought to quell discussion of the Tiananmen Square massacre, although previously focused on its own territory. Last month, the government stopped Zoom from allowing individual users to sign up in China, according to the Nikkei Asian Review.

“The memorial events for the June 4 massacre . . . impair the CCP regime’s legitimacy. Hacking such an online memorial meeting would do nothing beneficial to any other people or organisations except the CCP, especially its top leaders,” said a member of Mr Wang’s team when asked as to the motives behind the attacks.

Zoom has subsidiaries as well as a third of its workforce in China, where engineers’ wages are lower than in Silicon Valley. At the time of its initial public offering last year, it warned investors that its China links could be seen as a security and privacy risk. In response to previous criticism about security, it has added new measures, such as allowing users to opt out of using servers in specific regions and has pledged to release a transparency report by July.

After its sudden expansion during the pandemic, with 300m meeting participants each day at its April peak, Zoom has come under greater scrutiny. Earlier this month, Zoom’s chief executive Eric Yuan said he did not intend to offer end-to-end encryption — the gold standard in security — to Zoom’s consumer users, since that would prevent him co-operating with the FBI and local law enforcement.

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

Get alerts on Zoom Video Communications Inc when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article