Zoom Video Communications has gained a following in China in recent months from users ranging from underground churches to feminists who saw it as a rare way to connect with the world beyond the reach of state censors.
Some fear that window may be closing.
On Friday, Zoom said it had reactivated accounts of three U.S. and Hong Kong activists that it had suspended at Beijing's request after they tried to commemorate the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. The U.S. company also said it was developing technology to enable it to remove or block participants based on geography.
The Chinese government heavily regulates the internet, in a system widely dubbed the Great Firewall, saying this is needed to maintain social stability. All Chinese social media platforms are required to censor public posts deemed illegal.
"For us, the biggest challenge has been how to reach people within China because of the firewall, and Zoom for a while looked like a ray of hope," said U.S.-based Humanitarian China founder Zhou Fengsuo, whose account was suspended.
The conferencing tool, originally designed for business use, saw Chinese user numbers surge in tandem with its global popularity amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a rare feat given how Western peers such as WhatsApp, Google Meet and Facebook are blocked in China's cyberspace.
Zoom's mobile app has been downloaded 5.4 million times from Apple's China store since Jan. 1, 11 times the number over the same period in 2019, according to research firm SensorTower.
While most Chinese users turn to Zoom for conference calls and casual chats, some have seized the chance to discuss potentially sensitive topics, from patriotism to feminism.
Some state-approved and underground churches use Zoom to hold services.
"Zoom is not the only software, but we feel it's rather more accessible," said Xiao Meili, a feminist activist who held a Zoom talk in April on the #MeToo movement.
"Before, some friends recommended Tencent conference … but everyone would feel like you shouldn't say anything that's slightly sensitive," she said, referring to a tool offered by the Chinese tech giant behind WeChat.
Members of Congress want answers from Zoom
In the U.S., three U.S. three Republican lawmakers are asking Zoom to clarify its data-collection practices and relationship with the Chinese government after the account suspensions.
Greg Walden, the top Republican on the House's energy and commerce committee, and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the ranking member of a consumer subcommittee, sent a letter to Zoom CEO Eric Yuan on Thursday asking him to clarify the company's data practices, whether any was shared with Beijing and whether it encrypted users' communications.
In addition to the representatives, both from Oregon, Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri also wrote to Yuan asking him to "pick a side" between the United States and China.
"We appreciate the outreach we have received from various elected officials and look forward to engaging with them," a Zoom spokesperson said.
👀<a href="https://twitter.com/repgregwalden?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@repgregwalden</a> and <a href="https://twitter.com/cathymcmorris?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@cathymcmorris</a> question <a href="https://twitter.com/zoom_us?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@zoom_us</a> CEO on data privacy practices and potential coordination with the CCP. <br><br>Zoom, a U.S. company, closed the account of a U.S.-based Chinese activist group for holding a pro-democracy event.<br><br>Learn more⤵️<a href="https://t.co/oEiCfpNNE4">https://t.co/oEiCfpNNE4</a>
The California-based company was started by Yuan, an American citizen now after being born and educated in China.
Democrats also expressed concern on social media this week, including New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez and Texas congressman Joaquin Castro.
"It is deeply troubling that a U.S.-based company like Zoom is willing to shut down accounts in the United States to appease the Chinese government. Sadly, Zoom is hardly unique," said Castro.
In March, Youth Lectures kicked off a series of Zoom talks, the first of which was led by Chinese University of Hong Kong Prof. Chow Po Chung, on freedom of speech in China. Chow's mainland China account on the Twitter-like platform Weibo has been deleted multiple times.
Other anonymous groups hosted lectures from a #MeToo activist and a gender activist on their work in mid-May.
WATCH l Hong Kongers defy threats of arrest to commemorate anniversary:
New York-based Lu Pin, whose influential Feminist Voices accounts on Weibo and WeChat were shut by authorities in 2018, said Zoom was a way to connect a Chinese audience to the outside world.
"You don't have to climb the firewall, people in China and outside of China both can connect to it," she said.
There are few alternatives, she said.
"This is not a multiple-choice question. If you're a Chinese person, if you don't use this, what will you use?"
Zoom's China users had already been subject to new constraints since last month when the company announced that free users would no longer be able host meetings, and new registrations were limited to some enterprises.
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