A recent report has cast a spotlight on the Chinese tech giants Bytedance’s and Huawei’s roles in facilitating rights abuses against Muslim minorities in the region of Xinjiang.
Canberra-based think tank Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), in a Nov. 28 report titled “Mapping More of China’s Tech Giants: AI and Surveillance,” warned that many Chinese tech companies are not “politically neutral actors.”
“All Chinese tech companies have deep ties to the Chinese state security apparatus,” the report said.
Inside China, the report pointed out that these Chinese tech companies operate in a regulatory environment in which “concerns over the potential use of invasive systems of surveillance to erode civil liberties are largely and substantively ignored by design.”
At the same time, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has embedded party committees in these tech companies, and Chinese intelligence and security law compel individuals and entities to collaborate with national intelligence matters, making “inextricable links between industry and the Chinese party-state.”
“[CCP] perceives the expansion of Chinese technology companies as a crucial component of its wider project of ideological and geopolitical expansion, and that they are not purely commercial actors,” the report stated.
The report relied on open-source data, including company websites, corporation information, tenders, and media reporting to review 11 Chinese companies and organizations.
Combined with an earlier report by the think tank published in April, ASPI’s interactive website, Mapping China’s Technology Giants, contains reviews of 23 Chinese companies and organizations.
The latest report highlights two companies—Huawei and ByteDance, the latter is known for its popular app TikTok—and their roles in Beijing’s oppression in Xinjiang.
TikTok, known as “Douyin” in China, was launched by ByteDance in 2016. In the following year, ByteDance acquired fellow Chinese social media service Musical.ly for $1 billion. In August 2018, ByteDance dropped the Musical.ly brand and launched a revamped version of TikTok.
In July this year, Australian news site Ad News reported that that TikTok had more than 700 million monthly active users in the world.
Along with being widely-used by teens, TikTok is also known for being popular among U.S. military personnel, which prompted the U.S. Army to undertake a security assessment of the app in November, following a public call when U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote a letter to Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy.
“We have found that TikTok’s parent company ByteDance … collaborates with public security bureaus across China, including in Xinjiang where it plays an active role in disseminating the party-state’s propaganda on Xinjiang,” the letter stated.
The letter, which requested a response from the U.S. Army by Dec. 6, raised concerns about TikTok’s collection and handling of user data, and called for an assessment of potential national security risks posed by Chinese tech companies.
The U.S. State Department has estimated that more than 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are currently being detained inside internment camps in Xinjiang, as part of the Chinese regime’s crackdown on “extremism.” Beijing claims these camps are “vocational training centers.”
Outside these camps, authorities have effectively turned the region into a police state with Xinjiang’s population being subject to constant surveillance through a dense network of security cameras and checkpoints.
The report pointed out that China’s Ministry of Public Security signed a strategic cooperation agreement with ByteDance in April, allowing all levels and divisions of police units within the ministry, as well as county-level traffic police, to have their own Douyin accounts to disseminate propaganda.
In September 2018, Chinese state-run media Yaxin reported that Xinjiang Internet Police had registered its Douyin accounts, in an effort to better “govern the network” and to “raise network safety and law-abiding consciousness.”
According to the report, ByteDance worked closely with Xinjiang authorities, particularly those in Holan, a town in the province that has been the “target of some of the most severe repression.”
After conducting satellite imagery analysis, the report concluded that there were about a dozen suspected detention facilities in the outskirts of Hotan.
For instance, Zhou Nengwen, the head of Hotan government’s propaganda bureau, spoke in April that he was excited to use Douyin to “promote Hotan’s products and images,” following talks by ByteDance’s representatives at the Chinese city of Tianjin.
U.S. officials have repeatedly warned about the security risks associated with Huawei’s products and urged other countries not to use its equipment for telecommunication networks, particularly 5G.
U.S. officials and experts have expressed concerns that Huawei’s equipment could be exploited by Beijing for spying or communication disruptions due to the Chinese tech giant’s close relationship with the Chinese military, as well as national security laws that compel any Chinese company to cooperate with intelligence agencies when asked.
In May, the U.S. Department of Commerce added Huawei and 68 affiliates companies to its trade blacklist, and added 46 additional entities in August.
The report disputed a claim made by a Huawei executive during a UK parliamentary committee in June, when the executive said the company’s activities in Xinjiang occurred through “third parties.”
“That’s not correct [about the third party claim]. Huawei works directly with the Chinese Government’s Public Security Bureau in Xinjiang on a range of projects,” the report stated.
Since 2011, Huawei began working with the police department in Karamay, a city in Xinjiang, on cloud computing projects, including public video surveillance, according to the report.
“Huawei was said to have built the police surveillance systems in Karamay and Kashgar prefectures and was praised by the head of Xinjiang provincial police department for its contributions in the Safe Xinjiang program,” the report added.
In 2018, Xinjiang’s Public Security Department and Huawei inked an agreement to establish an “intelligence security industry” innovation lab in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, according to the local government website. The partnership was aimed at “safeguarding Xinjiang’s social stability and long-term security.”
In May 2019, state-run Xinjiang Broadcasting and Television Network Corporation and Huawei signed a strategic agreement in which the two sides would cooperate on areas including internet infrastructure and 5G, according to the report. The objective of the partnership was to realize “social stability” and promote “positive energy” in Xinjiang.
“The timeline of Huawei’s Xinjiang activities should be taken into consideration during debates about Huawei and 5G technologies,” the report said.