China-based Zoom employee spied on dissidents at direction of Chinese intelligence, feds say
Chuck Ross, DCNF
- A Zoom employee based in China spied on users of the company’s video conferencing platform on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party’s intelligence services, according to federal prosecutors.
- The executive allegedly fabricated evidence against the video conference participants in order to shut down events to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre.
- A Justice Department official said that the case shows that American companies with significant business interests in China are “not immune from the coercive power” of the communist regime.
A Chinese national working for Zoom Communications, the California-based, tech company spied on video conference calls at the behest of China’s intelligence services, and shut down virtual events held to commemorate the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the U.S. government announced on Friday.
Justice Department officials said that Xinjiang Jin, also known as Julien Jin, collected information about the video platform users, some of whom were in the U.S., and provided it to China’s intelligence and law enforcement services.
Jin served as Zoom’s in-house liaison to the Chinese government. The complaint shows he had close contact with other Zoom employees as well as with agents of the Chinese government. Jin also met with Zoom’s chief operating officer, and exchanged messages with CEO Eric Yuan, according to the complaint.
The complaint, which was unsealed against Jin on Friday, does not identify the company, but a spokesperson for Zoom issued a statement confirming that it is the company and the center of the investigation.
Jin, who remains in China, is charged with conspiracy to commit interstate harassment and unlawful conspiracy to transfer means of identification.
John Demers, the assistant attorney general for national security, said that the case shows that U.S. executives are at risk of being co-opted by the Chinese government when doing business with Beijing.
“No company with significant business interests in China is immune from the coercive power of the Chinese Communist Party [CCP],” Demers said in a statement.
The FBI put Jin on its “Most Wanted” list in November, saying that he worked “at the behest of the Chinese government’s intelligence and security services.”
Prosecutors allege that Jin worked as the chief liaison between Zoom and the Chinese government’s intelligence and law enforcement services.
“In that capacity, he regularly responded to requests from the [People’s Republic of China] government for information and to terminate video meetings hosted on Company-1’s video communications platform,” the Justice Department said in its announcement of charges against Jin.
According to the complaint, the Chinese government required Zoom to install Jin as its liaison as part of a “rectification” plan that the company was forced to enter in order to continue doing business in China.
The complaint says that Chinese authorities blocked access to the company’s video conferences on Sept. 8, 2019. News outlets reported on Sept. 9, 2019, that Beijing had restricted access to Zoom.
The complaint says that Zoom had to agree to ramp up its censorship and surveillance efforts as part of a “rectification” plan in order to resume business in China.
The plan required Zoom to “proactively monitor communications for content that included the expression of political views unacceptable to the PRC government,” the complaint says.
Zoom defended the decision in its statement on Friday, saying that the company had not, “at that point in our evolution, been forced to focus on societal or policy concerns outside of this relatively narrow frame of vision.”
Zoom said that the company’s employees, including Eric Yuan, the CEO, met with Chinese government officials in October 2019 to negotiate the “rectification” plan.
The goal of agreeing to the plan was “restoring our service” in China, Zoom said in the statement.
Jin sent electronic messages to Yuan and another employee on Oct. 25, 2019, in which he said he agreed to “proactively report” incidents to China’s Ministry of Public Security.
Zoom has seen astronomical user growth during the coronavirus pandemic as businesses have implemented remote working. Individual users have also flocked to the platform to stay in contact with friends and family members.
According to the government’s complaint, Jin’s Chinese government contacts tasked him with providing information about participants of Zoom’s video conferencing software, including names, email addresses and IP addresses.
He was also tasked with “proactively monitoring” the company’s video platform for meetings that the Chinese government considered to be “illegal.”
Jin also allegedly terminated at least four video meetings commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre at the behest of the Chinese government, the complaint says.
Jin and co-conspirators also infiltrated meetings in May and June 2020 where politically sensitive issues were being discussed. In order to shut down the meetings, Jin and his co-conspirators fabricated evidence that would violate the video platform’s terms of service, according to the complaint.
Jin would then use the fabricated evidence to compel the company to terminate the meetings and suspend the users’ accounts.
To carry out the scheme, Jin and his co-conspirators created fake email accounts in the users’ names, as well as fake profiles that suggested they supported terrorist groups like ISIS or distributing child pornography.
“The fabricated evidence falsely asserted that the meetings included discussions of child abuse or exploitation, terrorism, racism or incitements to violence,” the government said.
Chinese government authorities used information collected by Jin as part of an intimidation campaign against dissenters and their families in China, according to the complaint.
“PRC authorities temporarily detained at least one person who planned to speak during a commemoration meeting.”
In another incident, according to prosecutors, Chinese government agents visited the family members of a person who took part in the video meetings “and directed them to tell the participant to cease speaking out against the PRC government and rather to support socialism and the CCP.”
Zoom said in its statement that the company fired Jin and has placed other employees on administrative leave pending an internal investigation.
The company said that it received subpoenas in June 2020 and July 2020 from federal prosecutors in California and New York as part of the investigation.