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U.S. May Blacklist Chinese Surveillance Firm, 'New York Times' Reports

May 23, 2019
Originally published on May 23, 2019 7:47 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Officials of the Trump administration have signaled the next way that they may pressure China. The New York Times reports the U.S. is considering putting a Chinese tech company on a blacklist. If that happens, the move would deny U.S. computer chips and other technology to the video surveillance firm Hikvision, which would join the giant telecom maker Huawei on that blacklist. NPR's Rob Schmitz is in Shanghai.

Hi there, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What kind of video surveillance does Hikvision do?

SCHMITZ: Well, Hikvision specializes especially in facial recognition; so anything that would identify people. And it's one of the world's largest manufacturers of video surveillance equipment.

INSKEEP: And you see that stuff all over China now - right? - at airports and other places.

SCHMITZ: You see it everywhere, yeah. And so it's collecting tons of data, and it's worth $7 billion. It has 30,000 employees. It's so successful because one of its largest clients is the Chinese government, as we mentioned. China has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on domestic surveillance in recent years, especially in regions like Xinjiang, where hundreds of thousands of Muslims are being detained for extremist thoughts. I spoke to Human Rights Watch - Maya Wang about the Trump administration's potential crackdown on Hikvision, and here's what she said about it.

MAYA WANG: I think it would be really good news because I think it could significantly make it at least temporarily difficult for the Chinese government in this surveillance project.

SCHMITZ: And for the record here, Steve, Hikvision has issued a statement to the media, saying it's not aware of how its equipment is used inside of China. But Wang says the company isn't being honest about that because it has advertisements on its own website boasting of its partnership with Chinese police.

INSKEEP: Wow. And, of course, it's hard to - it's hard not to notice the video surveillance technology. It's obvious. It's right in front of you. I just...

SCHMITZ: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...Want to observe, Rob - this seems to bring together several of the things that make Americans uneasy about China. It's all here - the growing...

SCHMITZ: Right.

INSKEEP: ...Chinese economy, the use of U.S. technology, an authoritarian government keeping an eye on people, including you when you've been going around China doing your reporting.

SCHMITZ: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: What is the - what - of those various concerns, what is really motivating the U.S. here, as best you can tell?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. I mean, I'm probably in Hikvision's database, I would imagine. I think many observers here suspect that this is coming from a desire to inflict economic harm on China rather than out of a desire to help a repressed group in Xinjiang. And it's possible that it could be both. You know, the Trump administration has always asserted that China poses an economic, technological, geopolitical threat, and that includes a threat to human rights outside of China. Hikvision not only sells its AI-enabled cameras to China's government, but it's also selling them to authoritarian governments around the world so that they can keep tabs on their populations. And members of the Trump administration, namely Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have expressed concerns about this and, you know, saying, basically, that they are exporting an Orwellian surveillance system to other countries.

INSKEEP: Briefly, how does China respond?

SCHMITZ: Well, Hikvision is in trouble. It's listed on the Shenzhen exchange. Its stock is tanking. Beijing weighed in today, saying all of Washington's sanctions are unilaterally escalating the trade dispute and dragging down the world economy.

INSKEEP: OK. Rob, thanks very much - really appreciate it.

SCHMITZ: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.