Tinker, tailor, soldier . . . Zoom spy? The late, great David Cornwell, aka John le Carré, did not pen a novel about the defining geopolitical rivalry of the 21st century, between the US and China. But if he had, he might have modelled one of his inimitable protagonists on Jin Xinjiang, aka Julien Jin, a former China-based executive for Zoom, the Californian videoconferencing company.
Mr Jin was the subject of a remarkable complaint filed last month by the US Department of Justice, which is pursuing him for allegedly surveilling and disrupting certain Zoom users on behalf of Chinese police and state security agents.
His story is a gripping one, showing the enormous pressures that the staff of US multinationals can be subjected to by the Chinese party state — and the losses their employers can then suffer in terms of both stolen proprietary information and reputational damage. Mr Jin’s predicament is also one that many other employees of multinationals in China are likely to face, especially as the US and Chinese governments increasingly target each other’s companies.
Over recent weeks and months, President Donald Trump has slapped technology and financial sanctions on some of China’s largest 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 these — hoping in part that the incoming Joe Biden administration will not escalate tensions further. However, it is also unlikely that the new US president will move quickly to unwind 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 of 2019, Zoom’s online services were suddenly blocked by China’s great internet firewall, just as those of Facebook, Google, Twitter and many US media companies still are today.
As Zoom notes in a response to the DoJ’s complaint against Mr Jin: “At that time, we were a much smaller company primarily serving businesses. The [China] shutdown caused significant disruption for many of our multinational customers who could not effectively communicate with their employees and partners in China. They urged us to take immediate action to get the service resumed.”
Mr Jin was appointed Zoom’s liaison person with the Chinese government as the company tried to get its services restored in the world’s second-largest economy.
Beijing’s price was a high one. As far as Mr Xi’s administration was concerned, anyone using Zoom’s services to discuss sensitive subjects — such at the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre or Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests — was breaking Chinese law, regardless of where they were based.
As Mr Jin told his colleagues, according to the DoJ complaint, Chinese police wanted Zoom to “proactively report and give them early warning” about discussions related to “hot illegal incidents”. “They also want me,” he added, “to provide them with some detailed lists of our daily monitoring, such as Hong Kong demonstrations . . . there were some things that were difficult to determine whether they were legal or illegal, and they would help determine them.”
Mr Jin, who has since been fired by Zoom and is believed to still be in China, could not be reached for comment.
Within two months, the company had agreed to a secret “rectification plan” with Chinese authorities. Its China services were restored in November 2019.
Mr Jin remained Zoom’s contact person for Chinese authorities. As the 31st anniversary of Tiananmen approached last year, he allegedly helped state security agents monitor and disrupt online memorial events and discussions involving US-based participants. When he was unable to access US servers as needed, he worked with colleagues there to, Zoom says, attempt to “circumvent certain internal access controls”.
Executives at other multinationals might be tempted to think Zoom is a uniquely vulnerable company, given the services it provides. After all, Boeing, ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs and the like are not facilitating what Beijing regards as sensitive or illegal discussions about Chinese democracy movements.
But that is the wrong way to look at it. Chinese security agents wanted access to Zoom’s systems, in this case to gather “evidence” and disrupt meetings. What might they want from other companies’ systems? The answer is quite a lot, and there is not much standing in their way once they start pressuring China-based employees to provide it.