Chinese technology giant Huawei has provided sophisticated computing and big data services to authorities in the country’s northwestern Xinjiang region, where officials have ordered the construction of an extensive network of digital surveillance and control even as large numbers of Muslims remain locked inside prison-like centres for political indoctrination and skills training.
In June, Huawei’s global cybersecurity and privacy officer, John Suffolk, said the company does not directly do business with security services in Xinjiang, saying it works only with third-party contractors. “We stay in the commercial space,” he said.
But considerable evidence suggests otherwise, underscoring Huawei’s role as a provider of technology for a powerful state monitoring apparatus that authorities say is designed to stamp out radicalization.
The idea that Huawei is not working directly with local governments in Xinjiang is “just straight-up nonsense,” said Vicky Xu, a researcher with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Cyber Policy Centre.
She documented her findings in a report, released this week, that relies in part on Huawei’s own publications to show the company has worked with the Karamay Police Department on cloud-computing projects; with the Public Security Bureau of Aksu Prefecture on a modular data centre; with the regional capital, Urumqi, on the establishment of an “intelligent security industry” innovation lab; and with the Xinjiang Broadcast and Television Network Co. Ltd. on a co-operative project whose goals include “creating good public opinion for achieving Xinjiang’s general goals of social stability and long-term stability.”
Governments around the world, including Canada’s, have worried that Huawei telecommunications technology could be used by China for espionage, something Huawei has denied. But it’s time for Western governments to also consider the company’s willingness to help build the infrastructure of authoritarianism, Ms. Xu said, especially after the U.S. blacklisted 28 Chinese organizations – including surveillance-camera giant Hikvision, but not Huawei – over their roles in human-rights violations in Xinjiang.
“When it comes to Huawei, it seems that whatever they are doing in Xinjiang, whatever they are doing to help the Chinese government crack down on Uyghurs and other minorities, is just not even part of the conversation. And that’s really astonishing,” Ms. Xu said. Uyghurs are a largely Muslim group who have been the chief target of a forced indoctrination and skills training campaign in Xinjiang, where officials say they have used such tactics to successfully prevent terrorist attacks.
“For me, it’s more a concern that Huawei is a company that strictly adheres to whatever the Chinese government wants them to do,” Ms. Xu said.
What Huawei does is not “very different to what Hikvision is doing,” she added.
In a statement, Huawei said it does not comment on specific customers “but reaffirms that its safe city technology – which is general purpose and based on global standards – complies with all applicable laws where it is sold. Huawei does not operate safe city networks on behalf of any customers.”
Mr. Suffolk was more explicit in his June comments to the British House of Commons science and technology committee. “I don’t think it matters whether it is a dodgy regime. It matters what is in the law,” he said. “We do not create any moral judgments on what we think is right or wrong. That is for lawmakers to do.” He declined comment on whether the Chinese state represses human rights and rejected a characterization of himself as “a moral vacuum.”
For Chinese tech companies, the construction of digital security infrastructure in Xinjiang has been a boon. The region is spending more than US$7.5-billion on surveillance alone, analysts with Sinolink Securities wrote in a 2018 report, while Essence Securities has reported that Xinjiang authorities want to build a smart security cluster worth almost US$20-billion.
Some of the companies operating there have become household names in the West. They include online retail giant Alibaba, which has supplied technology for cloud computing to the Xinjiang government for use in policing and counterterrorism, and ByteDance, the creator of short-video app TikTok, whose platforms have been praised by local authorities in Xinjiang as avenues to promote regional products. (Users and U.S. lawmakers have accused ByteDance of censoring foreign content on TikTok, in accordance with Beijing’s demands, a charge the company has denied.)
State-backed technologies firms such as China Unicom and China Mobile, meanwhile, have sent employees to participate in home-visit programs in Xinjiang that have been criticized as an invasive surveillance program.
What sets Huawei apart, however, is its ambition to become a global giant in digital security technology, building on its expertise in chip making, cloud computing and wireless networks. The company released two dozen new smart surveillance cameras this year. In August, Duan Aiguo, the head of its security products branch, said global shipments of Huawei smart cameras were up 460 per cent over the past year, while other security services had “achieved explosive growth.”
In 2018, a Huawei executive said the company wanted to become No. 3 in the world for smart surveillance technology. This year, Mr. Duan set a more ambitious goal: “We won’t stop until we are No. 1."
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