President Donald J. Trump joins Chinese President Xi Jinping June 29, 2019, at the G20 Japan Summit in Osaka, Japan. (Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead)

China Blacklist: Trade War or Human Rights Concern? Perhaps a Bit of Both

The United States has blacklisted 28 Chinese organizations amid concerns about human rights violations. The action effectively blocks the 28 entities (which include government agencies as well as technology companies) from buying American products.

Not only is this the first time the Trump administration has cited human rights when blacklisting companies, it falls just as key trade talks between the two superpowers are due to resume. Timing is everything.

The human rights violations cited relate to the treatment of mostly Muslim Uighurs in detention camps. China calls these “vocational training centers” to combat extremism and defended criticism of these camps when it released its counter terrorism white paper in March.

The U.S. Department of Commerce statement says it “cannot and will not tolerate the brutal suppression of ethnic minorities within China”. “This action will ensure that our technologies, fostered in an environment of individual liberty and free enterprise, are not used to repress defenseless minority populations.”

“The additions include the XUAR People’s Government Public Security Bureau, 19 subordinate elements, and eight commercial entities. Located in XUAR and throughout China, these entities have all been implicated in the implementation of China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, and high-technology surveillance.”

One of the blacklisted companies, SenseTime, says it is “deeply disappointed” by the Department of Commerce decision.

“We will work closely with all relevant authorities to fully understand and resolve the situation,” the company said in a statement.

“SenseTime is focused on computer vision and deep learning. We work with customers all over the world to leverage AI technology for a range of applications, including education, medical diagnosis, smart city, transportation, communications and entertainment, among many others.

“We abide by all relevant laws and regulations of the jurisdictions in which we operate. We have been actively developing our AI code of ethics to ensure our technologies are used in a responsible way. In the meantime, we remain focused on protecting the interests of our customers, partners, investors and employees”

On September 25, 2019, Beijing Daxing International Airport commenced operation with 58 sets of SenseTime’s Smart Passenger Security Check System. The system uses SenseTime’s face recognition engine to automatically conduct person-ID-ticket verification to make sure passengers carry eligible identity documents and flight tickets for departure. It has also been set up at the luggage security check area, which performs a second round of identity check to ensure all passengers have been inspected.

Beijing Capital Airport and Shijiazhuang Zhengding International Airport have also started to deploy SenseTime’s system this year.

Others on the blacklist include Hikvision, Dahua Technology and Megvii Technology. Hikvision is one of the largest surveillance equipment manufacturers in the world. Last month it inked a deal with protective intelligence company, Scylla Technologies Inc., to explore opportunities for artificial intelligence collaborations.

The partnership between the two companies includes integration of Scylla AI-powered systems with Hikvision cameras and NVRs, which may well be thrown into doubt following the Department of Commerce announcement.

The U.S. is not the only country concerned with China’s treatment of the Uighurs and Beijing does have to address these concerns, but it is the timing of this announcement which is most interesting. The plight of the Uighurs is not new.

And, while this is the first time human rights has been used as a concern to blacklist organizations, it is not the first time the US has put Chinese groups under a trade ban. In May, the U.S. infamously added telecommunications giant Huawei to the Entity List because of security fears over its products. It then put pressure on other nations to follow suit, with mixed results. Huawei responded by developing its own software and many Chinese alternatives to American tech are already being developed in several fields.

Ultimately, the Trump administration’s drive to contain China’s technological ascendancy could, in time, backfire.

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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