Foreign Affairs

Massey working with Chinese firm blacklisted over human rights

As New Zealand joins nations criticising China for its detention and surveillance of Uighur Muslims, one of our universities is continuing to work with a Chinese firm blacklisted by the US for providing technology to help with the Uighur crackdown.

A New Zealand university collaborating with a Chinese company blacklisted by the United States for its involvement in the persecution of Uighur Muslims is continuing to accept money from the firm, despite a government ministry notifying it of the sanction.

In October 2017, Massey University announced a funding agreement with iFLYTEK, a Chinese artificial intelligence heavyweight valued at $15 billion and designated a "national champion" by the Chinese government as part of its push to lead the world in AI by 2030.

iFLYTEK was among eight Chinese companies added to a United States trade blacklist last month, with the US Commerce Department citing their implication in “human rights violations and abuses in the implementation of China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, and high-technology surveillance against Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups”.

The blacklist prevents US companies from selling goods to the firms without a licence. with some sceptics suggesting the move is less about human rights concerns and more about curbing China's competitive threat.

However, there have been concerns about iFLYTEK for some time" in 2017, international NGO Human Rights Watch published a report on the company’s work with the Chinese government to develop a surveillance system that could automatically identify targeted voices in phone conversations, as part of wider efforts to build an expansive biometric database of its citizens.

Human Rights Watch said iFLYTEK’s technology had also been used by police bureaux in Xinjiang province, where a million or more Uighurs appear to have been detained in what resembles “a massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy” according to a United Nations human rights panel.

New Zealand has joined more than 20 nations in co-signing a letter to the UN criticising the treatment of the Uighurs and other minorities, while Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern last week described a New York Times report on the Chinese government’s crackdown - based on a leak of hundreds of pages of internal documents - as “deeply concerning”.

Alex Joske, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's International Cyber Policy Centre, told Newsroom it was “incredibly concerning” for a university to maintain ties with a company like iFLYTEK given its work in Xinjiang.

“It’s not just a kind of speculation that these companies are involved in human rights abuses - there is specific evidence that they are supplying technologies that are contributing to the disappearance of Uighur Muslims.”

"There are actually more concrete safeguards if you’re a lab rat in a biology department than if you’re a Uighur subject to surveillance technology being developed.”

Universities around the world did not seem able to separate benign research from the related military or intelligence applications of the work, Joske said.

The researcher has delved into the ties between Western universities and Chinese organisations with links to the country’s military or police, and said there were widespread problems with a lack of awareness about the implications of collaboration.

“We know that Western universities have trained thousands of Chinese military scientists, Chinese nuclear scientists and Chinese defence industry employees…

“It’s especially a problem when we’re talking about relatively new areas of technology like speech recognition or artificial intelligence - in these fields, the specialists involved often aren’t used to considering some of the real applications of the technologies because they’ve only emerged in recent years.

“This has had the impact of meaning, for example, there are actually more concrete safeguards if you’re a lab rat in a biology department than if you’re a Uighur subject to surveillance technology being developed.”

Joske said there needed to be a reevaluation of how governments managed the export of sensitive technologies, as well as the regulations for in-country training on how to develop equipment that would normally be subject to export restrictions.

'No advice or instruction' from Govt - Massey

In a statement, an MBIE spokeswoman said the ministry had alerted Massey University to the blacklisting as soon as it came to light “so it could consider any implications for itself”.

However, it was up to universities to independently decide what international relationships they forged, the spokeswoman said.

“New Zealand has an open science system that welcomes and benefits from international collaborations.”

A Massey University spokesman confirmed the agreement was still in place, covering “online teaching tools and speech language recognition”.

The arrangement involved the company funding the salary of an academic who split his time between Massey University in New Zealand and iFLYTEK in China.

“While no advice or instruction has been received from any government department we would naturally consider any request or proposal put forward by officials should the Government have concerns,” the spokesman said.

Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods declined to comment on Massey's contract with iFLYTEK when approached by Newsroom, with a spokeswoman referring to a comment she had provided earlier this year about the general issue of dual-use technologies.

“International research collaborations are vitally important to our public and private research sectors. While the Government doesn’t regulate international research partnerships, dual-use technology transfers (exports) may be subject to New Zealand’s export control regime which covers military and dual-use technologies.

"The Government’s Protective Security Requirements provides universities with guidance to manage risks.”

iFLYTEK has brushed off the US sanctions, with the company's chief executive Liu Qingfeng telling staff in an open letter shortly after the news: "We will not be strangled."

Get it early – This article was first published on Newsroom Pro and included in Bernard Hickey’s ‘8 Things’ morning email of the latest in-depth business and political analysis. Get it early by subscribing now or starting a 28-day free trial.

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