A Chinese national and former employee of the videoconference firm Zoom has been charged by the FBI with conspiracy for disrupting online protests marking the 1989 massacre of Chinese pro-democracy protesters.
Software engineer Xinjiang Jin, also known as Julien Jin, worked as the liaison in China for San Jose-based Zoom Video Communications Inc., owner of the widely used videoconferencing software.
The FBI said in a statement that Mr. Jin is believed to be in China and faces federal charges of conspiracy to commit interstate harassment and unlawful transfer of means of identification.
The FBI did not identify the company that Mr. Jin, 39, worked for, but Zoom said in a statement that Mr. Jin was appointed to work with Chinese authorities in October and has been fired.
“While the DOJ did not share with us its factual allegations in advance of the public release of the complaint, we learned during the course of our investigation that the China-based former employee charged today violated Zoom’s policies by, among other things, attempting to circumvent certain internal access controls,” the company said.
“We also learned that this former employee took actions resulting in the termination of several meetings and accounts, and shared or directed the sharing of a limited amount of individual user data with Chinese authorities.”
Investigators believe Mr. Jin supplied the Chinese government with user data on less than 10 non-China-based users, in addition to data turned over to authorities on Chinese users, according to a Zoom company blog.
The company said it is dedicated to the free and open exchange of ideas and supports U.S. government efforts to protect American interests from malign foreign influence.
The FBI said an arrest warrant was issued for Mr. Jin on Nov. 19, accusing him of assisting Chinese intelligence and security services in unlawfully disrupting a series of meetings in May and June 2020 “held to commemorate the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in the PRC [People’s Republic of China].
“The meetings were conducted using a videoconferencing program provided by Company-1, and were organized and hosted by U.S.-based individuals, including individuals residing in the Eastern District of New York.”
Zoom stated in a blog post regarding its blocking of online meetings of dissidents that “the Chinese government informed us that this activity is illegal in China and demanded that Zoom terminate the meetings and host accounts.”
“As such, we made the decision to end three of the four meetings and suspended or terminated the host accounts associated with the three meetings,” the company said.
The U.S.-based group Humanitarian China, which hosted one of the meetings, said it was “irresponsible for the entire world to rely on a media platform willing to cave in to direct ‘demands’ from an authoritarian regime. Zoom infringed on the human right of free expression of citizens in China and the United States on demand from the [Chinese Communist Party].”
Unlike other Western platforms, Zoom is not blocked in China, an indication that it may be operating under Chinese government controls.
“No company with significant business interests in China is immune from the coercive power of the Chinese Communist Party,” said John C. Demers, assistant attorney general for national security.
“The Chinese Communist Party will use those within its reach to sap the tree of liberty, stifling free speech in China, the United States and elsewhere about the Party’s repression of the Chinese people.”
“For companies with operations in China, like that here, this reality may mean executives being co-opted to further repressive activity at odds with the values that have allowed that company to flourish here,” Mr. Demers added.
Several human rights activists accused Zoom of blocking or shutting down their accounts after they conducted online events related to the Tiananmen anniversary.
Former Tiananmen protest leader Zhou Fengsuo said his Zoom account was canceled after he organized an online memorial in May, which included a “significant proportion” of attendees from China.
“Our conference provided many the opportunity to connect with activists abroad for the first time,” said Humanitarian China.
About 250 people joined the Zoom event, and another 4,000 took part through social media.
The group said after the account was locked on June 7, log-in attempts failed and questions to Zoom were not answered.
“It seems possible Zoom acted on pressure from the [Chinese Communist Party] to shut down our account. If so, Zoom is complicit in erasing the memories of the Tiananmen massacre in collaboration with an authoritarian government,” Humanitarian China said.
Another prominent Chinese dissident, Wang Dan, who led student protests during Tiananmen, said his Zoom event on June 3 was shut down twice.
Zoom said in a statement at the time that the company must comply with laws of the countries in which it operates.
“We regret that a few recent meetings with participants both inside and outside of China were negatively impacted and important conversations were disrupted,” the company said in a statement.
FBI Director Christopher Wray said the problems are much larger than just Zoom.
“Americans should understand that the Chinese government will not hesitate to exploit companies operating in China to further their international agenda, including repression of free speech,” Mr. Wray said recently.
Seth D. DuCharme, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said Mr. Jin worked closely with the Chinese government and members of China’s intelligence services.
“Jin willingly committed crimes, and sought to mislead others at the company, to help PRC [People’s Republic of China] authorities censor and punish U.S. users’ core political speech merely for exercising their rights to free expression,” Mr. DuCharme said.
Mr. DuCharme and Mr. Demers said the unnamed company involved cooperated with the investigation.
The FBI complaint in the case said Mr. Jin worked as the company’s liaison to Chinese security services and regularly responded to requests from Beijing to terminate meetings hosted on the company’s platform.
“Part of Jin’s duties included providing information to the PRC government about Company-1’s users and meetings, and in some cases he provided information – such as internet protocol addresses, names and email addresses — of users located outside of the PRC,” the FBI said.
Mr. Jin also monitored the company’s video communications platform for what the Chinese government deemed to be “illegal” meetings for discussions on prohibited political and religious topics.
Mr. Jin is suspected of canceling at least four video meetings held for the 31st anniversary of Tiananmen. Most were organized by U.S.-based dissidents.
The FBI rejected Chinese claims that the online meetings were improper. “In fact, there was no misconduct; Jin and his co-conspirators fabricated evidence of [terms of service] violations to provide justification for terminating the meetings, as well as certain participants’ accounts,” the statement said.
“Jin then tasked a high-ranking employee of Company-1 in the United States to effect the termination of meetings and the suspension and cancellation of user accounts.”
The Chinese also set up fake email accounts in the names of political dissidents to fabricate evidence that the hosts and participants were supporting terrorist organizations, inciting violence or distributing child pornography, the FBI said.
“The fabricated evidence falsely asserted that the meetings included discussions of child abuse or exploitation, terrorism, racism or incitements to violence, and sometimes included screenshots of the purported participants’ user profiles featuring, for example, a masked person holding a flag resembling that of the Islamic State terrorist group,” the FBI said.
Chinese authorities used the false information to retaliate against and intimidate China-based meeting participants, temporarily detaining at least one person who planned to speak during the Zoom meeting and threatening relatives of the meeting participants.