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Tech Companies Should Stand Up to China’s Bullying

Zoom Blocks US-based Activist after Tiananmen Memorial

Signage at the headquarters of videoconferencing, remote work, and webinar technology company Zoom (ZM) in the Silicon Valley, San Jose, California, March 28, 2020.  © 2020 Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Sipa USA

Global tech giants censoring on behalf of the Chinese government for the China market is not news, but Zoom has taken appeasement to the next level by directly censoring users outside of China on the government’s behalf. This should serve as a wake-up call to tech companies that keep acceding to Beijing’s censorship demands.  

On June 7, Zoom shut down a US-based Chinese dissident’s account after he held a Tiananmen Massacre memorial that was joined by China-based activists and families of victims of the 1989 massacre. Zoom later reactivated the account and said that the suspension was to “comply with local law.”

It is unclear what Chinese “law” Zoom is referring to that would compel Zoom to censor users outside of China. Besides, freedom of speech is guaranteed in the Chinese constitution and there is no law banning people from attending a vigil to commemorate the Tiananmen Massacre.

“Complying with local laws” has been repeatedly cited as the reason by international companies when they relent to political pressure from Beijing. Apple said it was “complying with local laws” when it removed hundreds of virtual private network (VPN) apps from China’s App Store. LinkedIn said the same when it blocked content critical of the Chinese government.

Laws in China are often abusive and don’t comply with international human rights standards. Yet tech companies have a responsibility to respect human rights. Yahoo’s reputation remains tarnished two decades after it handed over the email records of two journalists to Chinese authorities, which resulted in the pair being sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Beijing’s fit of rage last year with the National Basketball Association after the general manager of the Houston Rockets posted a tweet supporting the Hong Kong protests shows that any criticism – even outside of China – can put even major companies’ holdings there in jeopardy. Tech companies can never be sure that they won’t land themselves in the same predicament no matter how hard they try to stay in the Chinese Communist Party’s good graces. Without the rule of law and the protection of basic rights, everyone and every business live in fear of the Party’s wrath.

Tech companies should stand together to resist Beijing’s censorship demands and uphold the right to freedom of expression. Otherwise, the groveling will never end.

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