There’s a growing bipartisan appetite to block and ban China from buying U.S. tech. But actually enforcing blockades requires work.
Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, vowed last week to prohibit U.S. companies from “abetting repression and supporting the Chinese Communist Party’s surveillance state” — a goal given new urgency by the new law that brings Hong Kong’s tech companies under Beijing’s sway. It’s the latest problematic tough-on-China message from the campaign trail. Trying to block China from buying U.S. tech isn’t as simple as putting offenders on a blacklist, as the Trump White House has already discovered.
American technology and the Chinese government are part of an increasingly tangled web, and unknotting it is no simple task. In some cases, punitive actions toward China have had some success. U.S. sanctions on Huawei prevented the Chinese telecom company from acquiring encryption technology that would have improved the security of the company’s products. This led the British government to consider reversing its plans to allow Huawei into the British telecommunications market. Technology that was somewhat safe for civilian use was now unsafe, thanks in part to U.S. efforts.
In other cases, trying to prohibit or pull U.S. companies out of business deals with China has proven difficult. The Trump administration placed 28 Chinese tech companies on the Commerce Department’s Entity List — effectively a blacklist — in October, in part because of their role in tracking and persecuting Muslims in Xinjiang. But several of these companies are customers of California-based Nvidia, a major maker of graphics processing chips heavily used by the world’s artificial intelligence firms. The blacklisted firms include SenseTime, which creates machine vision technology, and Megvii and Hikvision, which sell facial recognition technology.
“These firms’ operations have required good relationships with Silicon Valley, including big chipmakers like Nvidia,” said Rui Zhong, a program assistant for the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center. “America’s surveillance ties to the Chinese state operating in Xinjiang ranges from cameras and imaging technology to biodata processing.”
Nvidia declined to comment on the effect of the sanctions on its operations.
The issue of how to deal with technology transfers between the United States and China is one that has been simmering for years. The issue gathered to a boil at the end of June when China enacted the Chinese National Security Law, which essentially put Hong Kong and its many tech companies under the total control of China. Corporate entities like Tik Tok that had seemed relatively protected from the reach of the CCP were now in a new category, highly vulnerable to CCP influence and bullying. That law, which threatens freedom of speech in Hong Kong, comes after years of human rights observers denouncing the role of some U.S. tech companies in the Chinese persecution of Muslims Xinjiang.
China, as a threat, has been a perennial national security for years, but it has been thrust into the wider political discourse because of Covid-19 and presidential campaigns. Trump and Biden are in a competition to appear resolute, with political ads and speeches condemning each other as complacent to Xi Jinping’s authoritarian power grab, or outright corrupt. Americans who previously gave little or no thought to China are being bombarded with ads painting the country, and especially the Chinese Communist Party, as an urgent danger.
On Sunday, Fox News political host Laura Inghram asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo if the U.S. should consider banning Tik Tok and similar social media apps. “We’re certainly looking at it,” he said.
But adding entities to a blacklist doesn’t solve the problem of cutting the Chinese government off from U.S. technology.
A May report from two researchers with the London-based research firm Top10VPN, a site that looks at virtual private networks, revealed that Amazon and Microsoft had been providing web services to a variety of Chinese companies on the sanctioned entities list. The services included web and email hosting and content management.
“Through providing essential web services to these controversial companies, U.S. firms are playing a part in the proliferation of highly invasive surveillance products that have the potential to undermine human rights around the world,” the researchers wrote.
But companies like SenseTime are increasingly global, with offices and partners all over the world. More and more, companies have a variety of means to access web services they want to buy.
“To our knowledge, Amazon continues to provide essential web services to both Dahua and Hikvision and Microsoft remains the email hosting provider for Megvii and SenseTime. All four of these companies have faced allegations of being complicit in human rights abuses in China,” said TopVPN researcher Samuel Woodhams.
“The first step in attempting to prohibit American-made technology from aiding Chinese human rights abuses is by radically increasing transparency. In practice, this means revealing the true extent to which the two sectors are interconnected by requiring companies and government agencies to disclose their involvement in the flow of technologies between the two countries,” he said. “Without greater transparency, any enforcement measures aiming to ‘prohibit’ U.S. tech from helping the Chinese government to oppress its own citizens will remain ineffective.”
Microsoft declined to comment on the record. Amazon did not respond to inquiries.
It’s not just U.S. companies that are playing a role in the Chinese surveillance state.
“Universities also make up key components of these collaborative efforts,” said Zong. “Linkages have been drawn between facial data set availability, image recognition software development and analytics, and other means of advancing the technical capacity to monitor and develop law enforcement strategies in Xinjiang. So when we consider the connections between China and the United States when it comes to surveillance technologies, we are really talking about a wide swath of industries that range from academic R&D to chipmaking to image recognition software and hardware.”
All of that will mean wide government bans prohibiting American technology from going to Chinese human rights abuses will be hard to draft and enforce, even if they are the right thing to do.