Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Zoom Spy calls for warning for multinationals in China

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Handyman, tailor, soldier. . . Spy zoom? The late great David Cornwell, aka John the Square, has not written a novel about the defining geopolitical rivalry of the 21st century between the United States and China. But if he had, he could have modeled one of his inimitable protagonists on Jin Xinjiang, aka Julien Jin, former Chinese leader of Zoom, the Californian video conferencing company.

Mr. Jin has been the subject of a remarkable complaint filed last month by the US Department of Justice, which is suing him for allegedly monitoring and disrupting certain Zoom users on behalf of Chinese police and state security officials.

It has a compelling story, showing the enormous pressures that the staff of U.S. multinationals can be subjected to by the Chinese state party – and the losses their employers can then suffer in terms of both stolen proprietary information and damage to reputation. . Mr. Jin’s predicament is also a situation that many other multinational employees in China are likely to face, especially as the US and Chinese governments target each other. companies.

Over the past few weeks and months, President Donald Trump has slapped tech and finance punishments on some of the largest Chinese state-owned enterprises. In turn, President Xi Jinping’s administration has prepared legal measures allowing Chinese officials to respond in kind. Beijing has yet to pull the trigger on any of them – in part hoping new administration Joe Biden won’t escalate tensions. However, the new US president is also unlikely to move quickly to unravel any of Mr. Trump’s recent actions.

Mr. Jin joined Zoom’s office in Hangzhou, capital of eastern Zhejiang province, in 2016. Three years later, in September 2019, Zoom’s online services were suddenly blocked by China’s great Internet firewall. , just like those of Facebook, Google, Twitter and many United States. media companies still are today.

As Zoom In notes answer to DoJ’s complaint against Mr. Jin: “Back then, we were a much smaller company serving businesses. the [China] the shutdown caused significant disruption for many of our multinational customers who could not communicate effectively with their employees and partners in China. They urged us to take immediate action to get service back on track. “

Mr. Jin was appointed Zoom’s liaison with the Chinese government as the company tried to restore its services to the world’s second-largest economy.

Beijing’s price was high. As for Mr. Xi’s administration, anyone who uses Zoom’s services to discuss sensitive matters – as in the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre or Hong Kong pro-democracy protests – broke Chinese law no matter where they were based.

As Mr. Jin told his colleagues, according to the DoJ’s complaint, Chinese police wanted Zoom to “proactively report and give them an early warning” on discussions related to “hot illegal incidents.” “They also want me to provide them,” he added, “with detailed lists of our daily monitoring, such as the protests in Hong Kong. . . some things were difficult to determine if they were legal or illegal, and they made it possible to determine them. “

Mr. Jin, who has since been sacked by Zoom and is believed to be still in China, could not be reached for comment.

Within two months, the company had agreed to a secret “rectification plan” with Chinese authorities. Its services in China were restored in November 2019.

Mr. Jin remained Zoom’s contact person for the Chinese authorities. As Tiananmen’s 31st birthday neared last year, he reportedly helped state security officers monitor and disrupt online commemorative events and discussions involving US-based attendees. When he couldn’t access US servers as needed, he worked with colleagues there to, Zoom says, attempt to “bypass some internal access controls.”

Executives of other multinationals might be tempted to think of Zoom as a particularly vulnerable company, given the services it provides. After all, Boeing, ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs and others are not facilitating what Beijing sees as sensitive or illegal discussions about China’s democratic movements.

But that’s not the right way to look at it. Chinese security officers wanted access to Zoom’s systems, in this case to collect “evidence” and disrupt meetings. What could they expect from other companies’ systems? The answer is big enough and there isn’t a lot in their way once they start pressuring China-based employees to provide it.

tom.mitchell@ft.com

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