BEIJING (Reuters) – Zoom Video Communications (ZM.O) has gained followers in China in recent months, from users ranging from underground churches to feminists, who saw a rare way to connect to the world beyond the reach of state censors.
ARCHIVE PHOTO: A 3D printed Zoom logo is placed on the keyboard in this illustration taken on April 12, 2020. REUTERS / Dado Ruvic / Illustration
Some fear that this window may be closing.
On Friday, Zoom said he suspended the accounts of three US and Hong Kong activists at Beijing's request after trying to celebrate the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, but they have since been reactivated. The U.S. company also said it was developing technology to allow 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 it is necessary to maintain social stability. All Chinese social media platforms must censor public posts deemed illegal.
"For us, the biggest challenge was how to reach people in China because of the firewall, and Zoom for a while seemed like a ray of hope," said Humanitarian China founder Zhou Fengsuo, based in the USA, whose account was suspended.
The conference tool, originally designed for commercial use, has seen the number of Chinese users increase in parallel with its global popularity amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a rare feat given that Western colleagues like WhatsApp, Google Meet and Facebook are blocked in China's cyberspace.
Zoom's mobile app has been downloaded 5.4 million times from the Apple store in China since January 1, 11 times the number in 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 taken the chance to discuss potentially sensitive topics, from patriotism to feminism.
Some state-approved clandestine churches use Zoom to perform services.
"Zoom is not the only software, but we think it is a little more accessible," said Xiao Meili, a feminist activist who gave a talk on Zoom in April about the #MeToo movement.
"Before, some friends recommended the Tencent conference … but everyone thought you shouldn't say anything that was slightly sensitive," she said, referring to a tool offered by the Chinese technology giant behind WeChat.
INSIDE THE FIREWALL
In March, Youth Lectures began a series of lectures on Zoom, the first of which was led by professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Chow Po Chung, on freedom of expression in China. Chow's mainland China account on the Twitter-like Weibo platform has been deleted several times.
Other anonymous groups gave talks by a #MeToo activist and a gender activist in mid-May.
Lu Pin, from New York, whose influential Feminist Voices accounts on Weibo and WeChat were closed by authorities in 2018, said Zoom is a way to connect a Chinese audience to the outside world.
"You don't have to climb the firewall, people in China and outside can connect to it," she said.
There are few alternatives, she said.
“This is not a multiple choice question. If you are Chinese, if you don't use it, what will you use? "
Chinese Zoom users have been subject to new restrictions since last month, when the company announced that free users would no longer be able to hold meetings, and new registrations were limited to a few companies.
Reporting by Huizhong Wu and Brenda Goh and Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Tony Munroe and Pravin Char