VANCOUVER—A specialist on Chinese information warfare is calling on democratic nations to question the morality of their ties to Huawei and companies like it, echoing a report that called it a major player in the development of technologies used to persecute ethnic minorities.
The Monday report from Reporters Without Borders, entitled “China’s Pursuit of a New World Media Order,” points to Huawei’s role in the development and implementation of surveillance technologies used to monitor and oppress the Uyghur Muslim population in the Xinjiang region of China. Upward of a million Uyghurs are currently detained in internment camps — called “re-education centres” by the Chinese government — according to the UN and human-rights watchdogs.
The Chinese telecom company is a “key partner … in the persecution in Xinjiang province,” the report says, pointing to the company’s development of a “Safe City Solution” — an urban surveillance service that monitors the public through a network of cameras and sensors, ostensibly for public safety.
Elsa B. Kania, adjunct senior fellow with the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, said democratic countries have yet to pause to reflect on the implications of partnering with tech companies that are implicated in human-rights abuses.
“I think the question is: to what extent is there a moral obligation, as the international community looks to try to condemn and pressure the Chinese government on its abuses of human rights in Xinjiang … to also see Chinese companies as an extension of that agenda and to similarly exercise pressure against them?” said Kania.
According to Huawei’s own promotional material, its “Safe City” surveillance technologies include co-ordinated, citywide, high-definition video cameras that use artificial intelligence to recognize faces and licence plates automatically, logging each instance into a “cloud.” Analysts add that state strategies also include co-opting personal devices, such as smartphones, to track and listen in on potential dissidents.
“Huawei’s level of complicity in human-rights abuses in China can be framed as a systemic feature of the fact that it is a Chinese company that has been clearly linked to various national priorities,” Kania said.
Huawei is far from the only company to produce technology used in repressive governmental efforts, Kania said, and its technologies have legitimate uses. Nevertheless, the tools Huawei has developed and deployed in Xinjiang “have implications for public security, social stability and policing that are difficult to disentangle from the intense repression and paranoia that characterizes how these activities are carried out in Xinjiang.”
At the very least, Kania added, Huawei’s active operation of data and cloud-computing projects in Xinjiang point to the company’s indirect complicity in government persecution of Uyghurs in the region.
On March 5, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang told reporters that such criticisms are “venomous attacks against the preventive counterterrorism and deradicalization measures the Chinese government has taken to keep Xinjiang a stable and tranquil place where people of various ethnic groups live happily together.”
The migration of Han Chinese to Xinjiang in recent decades has created tension with many Uyghurs, some of whom consider their region an independent state.
Geographically, the Xinjiang region sits squarely in the middle of the government’s “Belt and Road” initiative, which seeks to connect China to markets in developing countries. Because dissidents within the Uyghur population have, in recent decades, protested violently against state control, pacifying the minority is key to the realization of the government’s goals.
To date, concerns raised internationally by intelligence experts and political officials around the security risks posed by Huawei’s equipment have focused largely on the company’s cosiness with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The proximity between the two entities — as well as explicit provisions in Chinese law — mean countries that include Huawei equipment in their internet infrastructure risk opening a backdoor for Beijing to obtain sensitive user data, these experts contend.
To date, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the United States maintain at least partial bans on Huawei equipment in their 5G infrastructure or official telecom contracts. These restrictions revolve around the perceived risks to national security. Canada has yet to decide.
Both Huawei and the CCP have consistently denied all such allegations, saying they reflect a U.S.-led bid to undermine China’s technological and economic ascendancy.
Darren Byler, an anthropologist and lecturer at the University of Washington, spent two years living and conducting research in Xinjiang. Based on his first-hand observation, Byler told the Star in an interview, “all tech that’s being used there is being used at least to some extent — sometimes passively, sometimes explicitly — to support the security state.”
Huawei hardware, such as smartphones, are a part of this surveillance operation, he added: “What Huawei does is permit (state) access to phones, to hardware, in a way that a company like Apple or another North American-based company wouldn’t permit.”
Government officials often “gift” smartphones to Uyghur villagers as “a way of showing how much they care about them,” Byler said.
“But the villagers, Uyghurs, that I’ve spoken to understand that these phones are being used to monitor their behaviour.”
Adrian Zenz, an independent researcher and expert on China’s minority policies, points to the ways in which the CCP frames Huawei’s technological contributions in Xinjiang as achievements to be lauded.
As far back as 2014, Zenz said, “Huawei received government awards and honours for installing citywide surveillance systems in Xinjiang.” He pointed to Huawei’s own website, which references the company’s continuing development of “peaceful city” systems in Xinjiang, as well as its co-operation with public security authorities.
Huawei boasts on its website that technology associated with Safe City Solutions is serving a billion people in more than 90 countries.
Perrin Grauer is a Vancouver-based reporter covering community issues and Canada’s drug policies. Follow him on Twitter: @perringrauer