2020 will be remembered not only for the COVID – 19 pandemic that has effectively brought large sections of global society to a screeching standstill but also for the fundamental changes it has induced in the field of communication. Once the domain of the physical realm, interaction between individuals has increasingly been cornered by the virtual and throughout 2020, the rise of the video conferencing application ZOOM has been the highlight of this particular change. On June 7, 2020 the company was once again pushed into the limelight but on grounds of stifling free speech and expression, in tune with the policies of the Communist Party of China’s on remembering the 1989 events of the Tiananmen Square Protests.
“We must comply with applicable laws in the jurisdictions where we operate”
A ZOOM video conference, hosted by Humanitarian China, a US based Rights Group, on May 31 saw participants join in from China and outside to listen to testimonies from people associated with the 1989 Movement. The three hours virtual meet saw about 250 people joining with numerous speakers ranging from the mothers of those students killed in the 1989 State – led crackdown to organizers of the Tiananmen vigil held in Hong Kong among others. On July 7, the paid ZOOM account of the organizers had been disabled, according to Zhou Fengsuo, a US based Chinese dissident and President of Humanitarian China. The official statement from ZOOM on the matter when questioned, reads:
“Just like any global company, we must comply with applicable laws in the jurisdictions where we operate. When a meeting is held across different countries, the participants within those countries are required to comply with their respective local laws. We aim to limit the actions we take to those necessary to comply with local law and continuously review and improve our process on these matters. We have reactivated the US-based account.”
The suspension of the organizers’ ZOOM account on account of the need to “comply with their respective local laws” is not an isolated event. Last year, Zhou Fengsuo’s LinkedIn profile was hidden from users in China by the company due to its obligations to adhere to “the requirements of the Chinese government.” Similarly another Zoom account of pro – democracy activist, Lee Cheuk Yan, was also deactivated in May. The company has come under increasing scrutiny as, despite its meteoric rise from 10 million users to 300 million users in a few months of the pandemic, its refusal to end – to – end encrypt its free calls and refusal to allow free accounts to China – based users has attracted questions of State run influence in its policies. Recently the Government in Taiwan has banned official use of ZOOM while schools in New York, the U.S. Senate, and the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs have discouraged or restricted its use.
Stifling dissident voices within and outside China
The discussion in the geopolitical corridors of policy analysts and policy makers is centered on China’s position in the post COVID – 19 international scenario. The rise and establishment of Xi Jinping’s position at the helm of the Communist Party of China has seen a much more ambitious foreign policy than his recent predecessors. However, Beijing’s push on stifling dissident voices within and outside China has also taken on a much more aggressive tone. The ZOOM controversy is part of a web of recent incidents associated with the Communist Party of China as it attempts to silence criticism of its rule and policies. The ongoing exchange of implicit threats against Australia against its insistence on holding inquiries for the origin and spread of the COVID – 19 virus as well as the backlash against the European Union is emblematic of Beijing’s intentions.
Internally, the passing of the new security law for Hong Kong would effectively chip away at the remaining vestiges of the region’s autonomy and individual freedom of its citizens to question and protest the Government’s policies, placing events such as the Umbrella Movement and the recent ongoing protests under the ambiguous ambit of “subversion of state power”, a legal clause that the State has frequently used against all manner of dissent against its policies. 2019 saw the world awaken to China’s brutal campaign against the people of “Xinjiang” that it deemed as security threats while the ongoing religious and cultural repression of the Tibetan people in Tibet continues unabated. Furthermore numerous human rights activists and analysts have decried China’s increasing surveillance of its population and the pandemic has seen a nexus being formed between the State and private corporations to intensify, qualitatively and quantitatively, this surveillance grid under the cover of its use for controlling the pandemic spread yet as the post 2008 Beijing Olympic revealed, these upgrades are incorporated into the larger apparatuses of control of the State.
Silencing and marginalizing memories
The memory of the Tiananmen Square Movement in China is scrubbed off by the Communist Party, terming it as a “counter revolutionary riot” and its subsequent brutal clampdown as necessary for the country’s progress towards development. The annual Vigil held for the event in Hong Kong was officially banned this year for the first time in 30 years on grounds on curbing the spread of COVID – 19 yet thousands gathered in Hong Kong in defiance of the authorities, yet under the new security law such vigils too will be criminalised as acts of subversion. China’s influence on corporate entities outside its borders continues to grow as seen in the recent incidents with the NBA, BMW, Marriot International, etc. where they were forced to apologise for statements that Beijing deemed were “offensive to Chinese sentiments”.
Humanitarian China laid out its concerns over China’s influence over ZOOM’s decision to suspend their account, stating that “If so, Zoom is complicit in erasing the memories of the Tiananmen massacre in collaboration with an authoritarian government.” As the world turns to a new reality forced upon by the COVID – 19 pandemic, the Communist Party of China will attempt to further its ambitions of becoming a global powerhouse as well as silencing and marginalizing the memories of Tiananmen Square and others that threaten to halt the path of development it has deemed as ” the right choice that suits our national conditions and has been endorsed by the Chinese people.”
*Tenzing Wangdak is a visiting fellow of Tibet Policy Institute. He is a TSP Alumna and graduated from New York University. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflects those of the Tibet Policy Institute.