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China’s Zoom Users Saw It as Window to World


A 3D printed Zoom logo is placed on the keyboard in this illustration taken April 12, 2020. (REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration)
China’s Zoom Users Saw It as Window to World
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The video conferencing service Zoom has gained a following in China in recent months. The program lets users have video meetings or make video calls to friends or family.

Users in China include people and organizations, from underground religious groups to women’s rights activists. They see the service as a rare window to the rest of the world.

But some Chinese fear that window to the world may be closing.

Last week, Zoom said it had suspended accounts of three U.S. and Hong Kong activists at the Chinese government’s request after the activists tried to honor the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square killings. But the accounts have since been reactivated. The company also said it was developing technology to enable it to remove or block users in some parts of the world. Zoom is based in the U.S. and also has employees and operations in China.

The Chinese government heavily restricts the internet in a system widely called the Great Firewall. The government says this is needed to keep social order. All Chinese social media websites are required to remove public posts the government considers illegal.

Zhou Fengsuo is the U.S.-based founder of Humanitarian China, a nonprofit group that pushes for the growth of civil society in China. His Zoom account was suspended. He told Reuters news agency that “the biggest challenge has been how to reach people within China because of the firewall,” and that Zoom once seemed to offer hope.

China’s Zoom user numbers quickly began to grow around the time of the COVID-19 health crisis. This was unusual because popular programs such as WhatsApp, Google Meet and Facebook are blocked on China’s internet.

Zoom’s mobile program has been downloaded 5.4 million times from Apple’s China store since January 1. That is eleven times the number from the same period in 2019, based on research from the company SensorTower.

While most Chinese users turn to Zoom for conference calls and friendly conversations, some have seized the chance to discuss important topics, such as patriotism and women’s rights.

Some state-approved and underground churches use Zoom to hold services.

Xiao Meili, an activist, held a talk over Zoom about #MeToo, a worldwide movement for women’s rights.

She told Reuters she understands Zoom is not the only software. But “…we feel it’s rather more accessible” she said.

Xiao said in the past some friends suggested using Tencent for conferencing. But people worried they had to be too careful about what they said on Tencent.

Tencent is a video conferencing tool offered by the same Chinese technology company as WeChat.

In March, Youth Lectures launched a series of Zoom talks, the first of which was led by Chinese University of Hong Kong professor Chow Po Chung. The talk was about freedom of speech in China. Chow’s mainland China account on the website Weibo has been removed many times.

Other unknown groups held talks from a #MeToo activist and a gender-activist on their work in mid-May.

New York-based Lu Pin said Zoom was a way to connect Chinese people to the outside world. Her Feminist Voices accounts on Weibo and WeChat were shut by authorities in 2018.

“You don’t have to climb the firewall,” she said about Zoom. “People in China and outside of China both can connect to it.”

Zoom’s users in China have already been subject to new restrictions since last month. At that time, the company announced that free users would not be able to hold meetings, and new users would be limited.

I’m Alice Bryant.

Reuters news agency reported this story. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

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Words in This Story

underground - adj. secret and sometimes illegal

firewall - n. a computer program that keeps people from using or connecting to a computer or a computer network without permission

post - n. a text, image or video on the internet, especially on social media

download - v. to copy data (such as text or images) from one computer system to another over the Internet.

church - n. Christian religious services or the building these services are held in

accessible - adj. able to be used or obtained

gender - n. the state of being male or female

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