China Exports Surveillance Systems for “Smart/Safe Cities”, Imports DNA Equipment Despite Export Controls

China’s tech companies have become major vendors of surveillance technology, and are increasingly exporting their products for the construction of “smart” and “safe” cities around the world. New reports and data projects have highlighted the expansive reach of these companies, raising red flags among democracies worried about China’s growing global influence in the surveillance industry. For the Financial Times, James Kynge, Valerie Hopkins, Helen Warrell, and Kathrin Hille reported on how authoritarian regimes are increasingly signing agreements with China to install its surveillance equipment in their cities:

Although they offer convenience and cost savings, these systems come with three specific risks, the experts say. The first is that authoritarian governments may use the capacity to monitor individual people on a real-time basis to impose a digital form of totalitarianism. The second is the risk that Chinese vendor companies — and thereafter possibly Chinese state security — could gain access to sensitive data. The third is that, in extremis, a Chinese company could flick a “kill switch”, shutting down a city’s operations. Several cities have already begun to try to extract Chinese-made equipment from their monitoring systems.

[…] New data shown exclusively to the FT reveals that the adoption of China’s safe and smart city technology by countries around the world is accelerating. A study by RWR Advisory, a Washington-based advisory, shows that out of a total of 144 safe and smart city contracts involving Chinese vendors signed outside China since 2009, 49 were scheduled for installation in 2018 or later.

[…] “Chinese surveillance technology companies are gaining a dominant position in this sector globally with the assistance of state support that takes a number of different forms,” says Andrew Davenport, chief operating officer at RWR Advisory. [Source]

In-depth research by Australian think tank ASPI has shown that top surveillance equipment manufacturers and the Chinese government maintain a close relationship. In an ongoing project called “Mapping China’s Tech Giants,” ASPI mapped a swath of surveillance and infrastructure projects led by China’s biggest tech companies. The updated database includes information relevant to the coronavirus pandemic, such as data on BGI, a Chinese genome sequencing company that set up labs in several countries around the world to help with COVID-19 testing. ASPI’s researchers documented these tech giants’ Party-state activities to show their cooperation with the Chinese government, as well as respective companies’ activities in Xinjiang, where their equipment may be used in the ongoing repression and crimes against humanity against Uyghurs:

Most, if not all, of China’s technology giants have a party committee, party branches and party secretaries. Party activity includes reviewing corporate decisions, addressing personnel issues, approving the strategic direction of a firm, and carrying out ‘corporate social responsibility’ tasks, which can often be political. Some CEOs are delegates to the National People’s Congress or the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, involving them in the party’s efforts to govern China and mobilise party outsiders to act in ways that further the party’s interests and ambitions.

For governments and organisations doing business with any Chinese entity, this distinct feature illustrates the political risk of doing business with a China-based company. It creates a more direct pressure point — even if company employees themselves were to resent this party activity. In our new 2021 ASPI ICPC Report Mapping China’s Technology Giants: Supply Chains and the Global Data Ecosystem, we highlight the ways in which the Party-state is embedding itself and its interests across all organisations, including the companies in this report. This occurs through expectation and agenda-setting in laws and policy documents, and through actions like the mobilisation of state resources around objectives like technological standardisation. Through these standards, policies and laws the party-state is refining its capacity to exert control over company activities to ensure it can derive strategic value and benefit from their global operations. [Source]

One company that has attracted particular attention recently for its CCP connections is surveillance equipment manufacturer Dahua. This week, IPVM, an industry publication focused on video surveillance products, reported that Dahua’s CEO–who is also the company’s Communist Party secretary–declared that the company must “always follow the Party” in a 2018 speech, drawing attention to the company’s close connections with the Chinese government. In February, it was reported that Amazon had a contract with Dahua, despite the fact that it is included on the U.S. government’s entity list.

But both the Financial Times and ASPI reports note that China’s global smart cities initiatives have also run into their share of complications. The Financial Times reported on backlash against Chinese surveillance technology in two English towns that led to two deals being cancelled at the last minute, and security officials in the U.K. and Taiwan have warned against the acquisition of surveillance equipment made in China. ASPI also reported on project setbacks in Pakistan and elsewhere:

Smart city projects (often referred to as ‘safe cities’ by those selling the technology) featured heavily in our 2019 version of the China Tech Map project. We found that these continued to evolve globally, but also faced greater scrutiny in some countries. In Pakistan, Huawei projects in Islamabad, Lahore and Punjab all faced various political, technical and financial setbacks. Meanwhile, in 2020, Huawei signed an agreement to supply smart cities solutions to Saudi Arabia, while projects in Duisburg, Germany and Valenciennes, France appear to be ongoing. [Source]

Meanwhile, a New York Times investigation has revealed Western countries have continued to sell advanced technology to China–this time American DNA equipment–that could be used to enable human rights abuses. The latest report is one more in a series of revelations about the continued business being conducted by U.S. companies with Chinese authorities despite the significant risk the products will be used to abet human rights abuses. The New York Times’ Sui-Lee Wee reported on how police in Xinjiang continue to succeed in acquiring American DNA equipment despite a 2019 ban on the sale of most U.S. goods to Xinjiang law enforcement:

But Chinese government procurement documents and contracts reviewed by The New York Times show that goods made by two American companies — Thermo Fisher and Promega — have continued to flow to the region, where a million or more residents, mostly Muslim Uyghurs, have been incarcerated in internment camps. The sales are happening through Chinese firms that buy the products and resell them to the police in Xinjiang.

It is not clear how the Chinese firms acquired the equipment, and the documents do not show that either American company made direct sales to any of the Chinese firms. Still, experts say the fact that the Xinjiang police continue to acquire and use U.S.-made DNA equipment raises questions about the companies’ diligence regarding where their products end up.

[…] DNA sequencers can be used to advance Covid-19 and cancer research and to exonerate prisoners. But they can also be abused by the police for surveillance, human rights activists say. Gulbahar Hatiwaji, a Uyghur who was detained in Xinjiang from 2017 to 2019, said her blood was collected about five to six times while she was in detention.

Ms. Hatiwaji said the police had also scanned her face and irises and recorded her voice. In another instance, she said, health workers worked from morning until night to prick the fingers of the 250 detainees who were locked up in a camp in Karamay, a city in northern Xinjiang. No one told them what it was for.

“We had no right to ask,” said Ms. Hatiwaji, 54, who is now living in exile in France. “Whatever they asked us to do, we had to obey.” [Source]

In January, Gulbahar Hatiwaji shared her harrowing account of being lured back to Xinjiang by Chinese officials under the pretense of signing retirement documents, before being detained in a “re-education” camp.

The revelations by the New York Times about continued equipment sales to Xinjiang officials are just one in a long line of scandals in which American companies have continued to do business with law enforcement in the autonomous region. In February, The Intercept’s Mara Hvistendahl reported on how Oracle marketed software to Chinese police that would allow them to mine databases containing DNA, facial recognition images, and other data. And in November 2020, The New York Times’ Paul Mozur and Don Clark reported on the role of Nvidia and Intel in supplying key chips for “cloud computing centers” in Xinjiang used to process the reams of surveillance footage collected on Uyghurs in the region.


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