The United States Blacklisted 28 Chinese Entities over Repression of Muslim Minorities in Xinjiang. What Does This Mean for Human Rights?
October 11, 2019
On October 7, the Department of Commerce blacklisted 28 Chinese entities, including government entities and commercial companies specializing in surveillance technology, in response to their involvement in human rights abuses against ethnic Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang region. Because these companies are now on the entity list, which is administered by the Bureau of Industry and Security, they are barred from buying products and components from U.S. companies absent explicit government approval.
Q1: What is ground-breaking about this designation?
A1: The United States can add entities to the list if they act contrary to its foreign policy interests. This is the first time that human rights explicitly were declared a foreign policy interest resulting in placement on the entity list, marking a significant milestone for human rights in this space.
Q2: Why are human rights in Xinjiang a concern?
A2: Since 2017, over one million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in the northern region of Xinjiang have been detained and placed into “re-education” camps by the Chinese government, which in fact function as extrajudicial detention facilities. The detainees are subjected to abuses ranging from brainwashing to torture. This mass detention is part of the government’s effort to control the Muslim population by monitoring their every move through various surveillance technologies, including facial recognition, applications to survey their electronic communications, and artificial intelligence (AI) that can sift through masses of data to identify “high risk” individuals for re-education. The technology deployed by the state security apparatus was developed by major companies. The Chinese government is not only using these technologies to surveil its own population; it is also exporting surveillance technologies and methods to other governments around the globe.
Q3: Why have the entities been added to the entity list?
A3: The Commerce Department determined that the entities are “engaging in activities contrary to the foreign policy interests of the United States.” Specifically, “these entities have been implicated in human rights violations and abuses in the implementation of China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, and high-technology surveillance against Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other members of the Muslim minority groups.” Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross added that “the U.S. Government and Department of Commerce cannot and will not tolerate the brutal suppression of ethnic minorities within China.”
Q4: What entities were added to the list?
A4: Entities added to the list include the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region People’s Government Public Security Bureau, 19 subordinate government agencies, and 8 mostly-surveillance commercial companies. Among the commercial companies are Hikvision, the world’s most highly valued AI startup; Dahua Technology; and Megvii Technology. Dahua and Megvii specialize in facial recognition technology; other listed entities focus on AI, voice recognition, and data. The list also included provincial and local security bureaus that have helped build a police state in Xinjiang.
According to public reporting, the commercial companies highlighted in the entity list have allegedly contributed to human rights abuses in Xinjiang in various ways.
According to the New York Times, Hikvision and Dahua created a facial recognition system designed to identify ethnic minorities but began to phase it out in 2018. Reporting has also noted that the voice recognition company iFlyTek is said to produce more than 80 percent of all speech recognition technology in China and supplied voiceprint technology to police bureaus in Xinjiang Province, which was allegedly used to build biometric databases for mass surveillance. Further, it reportedly developed a pilot surveillance system that can automatically identify targeted voices in phone conversations.
Megvii and Yitu Technology have reportedly worked with the Chinese government on software used for mass surveillance systems. Megvii has been accused of using facial recognition functionality by Face ++ to check whether the photo and the ID matches the person’s face or for cross-checking pictures on two different documents.
SenseTime has allegedly supplied software to the Chinese government for its national surveillance system, including closed-circuit television cameras and smart glasses worn by police officers. The smart glasses are used for identifying potential suspects by connecting to a feed that taps into China’s state database to track down potential criminals using facial recognition. Officers can identify suspects in a crowd by snapping their photo and matching it to the database. Officers are supplied with the person’s name as well as address.
Meiya Pico is a forensic app developer that claims a 40 percent share of the digital forensics market in mainland China. It was reportedly linked to a spy app used by Chinese police to extract data from citizen’s smartphones during random street checks. The app, known as MFSocket, provides access to images and audio files, location data, call logs, messages, and the phone’s calendar and contacts, including those used in the messaging app Telegram. MFSocket has been used in other regions of China.
Last, Yixin Science and Technology, a supplier of micro and nanofabrication equipment, reportedly provides big-data analysis for the Chinese authorities to assist them with surveilling ethnic minorities.
Q5: How does the entity list work?
A5: Listed entities are barred from buying U.S.-origin products and components from U.S. companies or from resellers abroad without U.S. government approval or license. Indeed, U.S. companies typically cannot even provide additional technology in support of using the equipment, such as software updates. U.S. companies can apply for licenses to supply products to organizations placed on the list, but the government will most likely deny the applications as there is an explicit “policy of presumption of denial for all items” with only a few exceptions, such as items for protection against chemical or biological agents that are consumer goods, items packaged for retail or personal use, or medical products.
The license requirements not only apply to items that are being exported but also those being re-exported or transferred abroad to any of the entities listed. Companies are expected to have management systems in place to ensure compliance with export controls, including identifying red flags that would alert them to the risk that a buyer is likely to re-export or transfer the product. If the red flag exists and the company exports the product nevertheless, the exporter could face significant legal penalties, including fines. The ban on re-export and transfer has the practical impact of placing a chokehold on a named entity’s access to U.S. goods. For the technology companies added to the entity list, the designation will affect their access to processing chips. The United States dominates production of chips, and this is expected to meaningfully impair some of the companies added to the entity list, at least in the short term.
Amy K. Lehr is director of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Mariefaye Bechrakis is program manager and research associate with the CSIS Human Rights Initiative.
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