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Zhou Fengsuo runs a human rights organisation that advocates for and supports political prisoners in China. Photo: KY Cheng

LinkedIn reverses course after censoring Chinese profile page of US-based human rights activist Zhou Fengsuo

  • Zhou, a student leader during the bloody 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, says he thinks media attention led to the change
  • LinkedIn had agreed to abide by Chinese government requirements on expression when it was given access in 2014

LinkedIn has restored access to the profile page of a prominent Chinese human rights activist, a day after the career networking site told him his page in China had been censored in accordance with the company’s commitment to adhering to the “requirements of the Chinese government”.

LinkedIn informed New York-based activist Zhou Fengsuo on Wednesday evening that because of “specific content” in his profile his page could no longer be viewed by users in China, according to correspondence that Zhou posted to Twitter.

Zhou Fengsuo, shown in 2014, says he was angered by the censorship. Photo: KY Cheng

“While we strongly support freedom of expression, we recognised when we launched that we would need to adhere to the requirements of the Chinese government to operate in China,” LinkedIn’s message to Zhou said.

As part of its launch in China in early 2014, LinkedIn, which was bought by Microsoft in 2016, agreed to demands from Chinese authorities to block access to accounts deemed to be in violation of local laws regulating content.

The agreement was roundly criticised by the human rights community, and there have been notable spikes in censorship around the annual anniversaries of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on protesters calling for democratic reform.

LinkedIn spokeswoman Nicole Leverich told the South China Morning Post on Thursday afternoon that an internal review had found that Zhou’s profile “was blocked in error”, and said the visibility of his profile in China had been restored. She declined to comment on how the “error” came about, or when exactly the action had been taken.

Responding to LinkedIn’s claim that the block was the result of an error, Zhou said in an email that he believed media attention had “escalated the level of attention such that they couldn’t handle it any more”.

Zhou, a leader of those protests who was once No 5 on Beijing’s most wanted list, suspects the censorship has nothing to do with the content of his LinkedIn profile. Instead, he attributes it to his activity on other online platforms such as Chinese messaging app WeChat, where he recently shared a video calling for the end of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s rule.

Watch: Former Tiananmen student leader Zhou Fengsuo speaks about future

His attempts to contact LinkedIn and ask what “specific content” had caused the censorship had been unsuccessful, he said.

“I feel anger and outrage,” Zhou, who runs a human rights organisation that advocates for and supports political prisoners in China, said before LinkedIn changed course. “It’s just not something you would expect from Silicon Valley, where they always profess their love for liberties and, in particular, expression.”

When accessed from within China on Thursday, the web address for Zhou’s account returned a page asking users to verify their phone number before continuing. An SMS verification code was never received.

Other LinkedIn accounts could be viewed on Thursday without the need for phone verification.

Zhou, who said he posted content such as articles and photos on LinkedIn only “sporadically”, had most recently posted a message ahead of the new year on behalf of his organisation, Humanitarian China, that mentioned the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

“Next year is the 30th anniversary of June 4th,” he wrote in a post sent to his 975 followers. “The democratic movement of 1989 is the driving force of Humanitarian China.”

Zhou Fengsuo with Liu Xia, widow of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, in New York in September. Photo: Zhou Fengsuo
In early December, Zhou shared photos showing his attendance at a Lantos Foundation gala at which the Hong Kong pro-democratic activist Joshua Wong was honoured in absentia.

Zhou’s LinkedIn newsfeed also features a photo of him and Liu Xia, widow of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, during her trip to New York in September.

But Zhou, who is a member of numerous activist chat groups on WeChat, believes that his censorship by LinkedIn is the result of orders by authorities that are monitoring his activity on other online platforms.

“Just yesterday, I realised that whatever I post [on WeChat], other people in China can’t see it,” he said on Thursday.

Zhou said the change came after he circulated a video among several chat groups that showed people tearing and burning the pages of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Governance of China, accompanied by text saying that China would be “entirely free” if Xi was deposed.

US tech firms’ practice of censoring or curating content at the behest of foreign authoritarian governments has attracted additional scrutiny after several recent cases.

In August, an investigation by online news outlet The Intercept found that Google had been working covertly to develop a sanitised version of its search engine service for deployment in China. The project was halted after internal complaints, The Intercept reported in December.

Last week, the streaming platform Netflix pulled an episode from US comedian Hasan Minhaj’s series Patriot Act in Saudi Arabia because it criticised the country’s ruling royal family.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: tech firm restores activist’s webpage