Asia

Chinese users saw Zoom as a window through the ‘Great Firewall’

BEIJING: Zoom 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.

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On Friday, Zoom said it had suspended accounts of three US and Hong Kong activists at Beijing's request after they tried to commemorate the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, but that they had since been reactivated. The US 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 US-based Humanitarian China founder Zhou Fengsuo, whose account was suspended.

Tiananmen survivor Zhou Fengsuo found himself locked out of Zoom. (Photo: AFP/Don Emmert)

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.

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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.

READ: Zoom says China demanded shutting activists' accounts over Tiananmen events

READ: Zoom briefly shuts account over Tiananmen commemoration, raising fears over free speechRead More – Source

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