Cisco Camera Case Seen Through Political Lens

A Wall Street Journal article last week sparked criticism of Cisco and other American tech companies for their participation in Chongqing’s new surveillance network. Critics argue that the system could be used for monitoring and suppressing political protests. Global Times objects from a different angle, arguing that such valuable and sensitive contracts should be awarded to Chinese firms:

Things are upside down here. As for the surveillance camera case, it should not be US media, but the Chinese authorities, who oppose to the installation of US cameras.

Video images throughout Chongqing could involve important national security information. How could we ask a foreign company, especially a company from a not so friendly country, to handle this project?

If the surveillance cameras in New York City were made in China, US congressmen would riot. We know the storms of opposition seen against US soldiers wearing berets made in China, or against Chinese private companies trying to acquire US companies.

Either China is too lax in its national security, the market economy is too open, or American newspapers are too petty. But the US has been teaching us lessons that there should be no neglect concerning national security. By this token, we should call for the Chongqing authorities to use domestic surveillance cameras only.

MSNBC’s Behind The Wall blog ponders the same issue:

In recent years, China has been gobbling up the press with high-profile debuts of “indigenously developed” technology such as their J-20 stealth fighter and most recently, the high-speed rail line between Beijing and Shanghai. Yet, why Chinese officials turned to American companies for assistance with the “Peaceful Chongqing” project as opposed to one of China’s most successful so-called “national champions” is certainly an interesting question.

Surely a company like Huawei, which is China’s largest networking and telecommunications equipment supplier, could have provided much of the expertise and technology required to manage such a project. Awarding the bid to Huawei would also have satisfied the Chinese government’s desire to foster “indigenous innovation,” a principle so near and dear to officials here that proposed laws introduced last year would have strong-armed many American companies into forced technology transfers as a cost for entry into the China market.

China’s overtures to Cisco could be another game attempt at improving the country’s security apparatus through forced technology transfer. Perhaps more cynically, China’s willingness to deal with American companies could also be seen as a preventative move to silence human rights critics in the West. After all, it is harder for the U.S. to claim the moral high ground when American companies and technology are powering supposed human rights violations.

Cisco’s Mark Chandler also responded to the WSJ article, pointing out the extremely broad scope of Chongqing’s plans, and reiterating that Cisco would provide only unmodified network infrastructure, rather than surveillance equipment:

First, as a matter of policy, Cisco has not and will not sell video surveillance cameras or video surveillance management software in its public infrastructure projects in China. We were offered an opportunity to supply those products in Chongqing and, contrary to the suggestion in the article, declined that opportunity.

Chongqing, as the largest municipality in the world, is seeking to provide a comprehensive set of e-government services, which the city describes as ‘Livable Chongqing, Smooth Chongqing (transportation), Green Chongqing, Peaceful Chongqing and Healthy Chongqing.’ The proposed goals of these initiatives include linking educational and health care institutions, public safety and using networking and smart building technology to drive energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Cisco’s proposed participation in the Smart+Connected Communities project in Chongqing is based on standard, unmodified Cisco routing and switching equipment – the same equipment that is supplied to governments and private sector customers worldwide, in full compliance with US export regulations, which are based in part on human rights concerns, and does not include video surveillance hardware or software.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation was unimpressed: “Whether the equipment provided is the cameras or the backend network infrastructure, Cisco appears to have made the choice to help the Chinese government surveil its citizens and, inevitably, target dissidents and disfavored minorities.”


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