Trump deals Chinese high-tech firms a heavy blow—for now

By Matt Field | October 11, 2019

US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping.US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet in 2017. Credit: The White House.

China has forced perhaps 1 million Uighurs into detention camps in Xinjiang, a region in the northwest of the country. Human rights groups have long decried the government’s treatment of the minority Muslim Uighurs, and now, just as US and Chinese officials begin trade talks to resolve a 15-month-long impasse, the Trump administration appears to be standing with the activists. It dealt a heavy blow to eight Chinese high-tech firms that the administration says are complicit in human rights violations in Xinjiang.

The US Commerce Department accused the companies of helping implement China’s repressive “high-technology surveillance” program there. As a consequence, the firms, as well as 20 governmental entities, will no longer have access to crucial US components. And while US officials maintain that the department’s announcement isn’t related to the trade talks with China, which began Thursday, there are reasons to wonder just how long the administration will stick to its guns. The trade war, after all, may be exacting an economic toll in the industry-heavy states that were critical to President Donald Trump’s surprise election win in 2016.

If Trump eases up on Chinese tech firms during trade negotiations, it wouldn’t be for the first time. In 2018, the president softened his administration’s tough stance on phone maker ZTE, tweeting that the Commerce Department’s restrictions on the company would cost “[t]oo many jobs in China.” Additionally, the administration is reportedly open to allowing Chinese telecom giant Huawei, which US officials have cited as a national security risk, to get some relief from previously enacted trade restrictions.

Whether or not Trump keeps the economic vice tightened around companies like the major Chinese artificial intelligence firms Megvii and SenseTime, getting China to change course in Xinjiang is an extremely tall order. The Chinese government has deeply rooted reasons to maintain its policies there, which according to a United Nations’ panel have forced 1 million Uighurs into the detention camps that the Chinese government is touting as vocational training centers. Yangyang Cheng, a physicist who writes about human rights and science in China—and who was the winner of the Bulletin’s 2017 Leonard M. Rieser Award for outstanding emerging science and security experts—says the new US trade policies likely won’t help.

“I personally do not see the tech firm blacklisting as having a direct, significant impact on the Chinese government’s ethnic policy, which is motivated by ideology,” Cheng wrote in an email to the Bulletin. “The Chinese government wants to stay in power and keep control over the population, and sees monopolizing the definition of a Chinese identity as a necessary means to secure such control.”

And while a lot of reports dealing with Xinjiang focus on government surveillance apps, sophisticated artificial intelligence, or the proliferation of security cameras, those high-tech systems are just part of the story. “New technology facilitates state control, but one should note that to this day, most of the Chinese government’s oppressive measures, including the ones in Xinjiang, are carried out with very low-tech methods, often with crude human labor,” Cheng wrote.

In addition to the Commerce Department’s actions, the US State Department put in place visa restrictions on Chinese officials. A spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused the United States of meddling in domestic issues and claimed that the government’s polices in Xinjiang had brought about “stability, prosperity, solidarity and harmony.”

“The lies of American politicians, instead of fooling the world, will only reveal their hidden political agenda,” spokesperson Geng Shuang said.

Political agendas, like politics, can make strange bedfellows. When it comes to Xinjiang, at the moment it seems like Trump is aligning his administration with the United Nations and human rights groups.

But then again, the trade war goes on.

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