The issue ministers are avoiding when it comes to Huawei

The debate over the Chinese tech giant largely ignores its participation in human rights abuses.

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As Downing Street nears a decision on the role Huawei will play in building Britain’s 5G network, the US has stepped up its lobbying campaign against the Chinese tech giant. At the centre of Washington’s campaign are concerns about the security of the company’s products, and its links to Beijing. But another consideration has remained largely absent from the public debate about the firm: its facilitation of human rights abuses.

In November last year, an Australian think tank revealed that Huawei had collaborated with law enforcement agencies to build a surveillance system used to target the Uighur people, a persecuted Muslim minority, in the Chinese province of Xinjiang. A notice issued at the time by the Chinese government stated that “together with the Public Security Bureau, Huawei will unlock a new era of smart policing and help build a safer, smarter society”.

The persecution of the Uighurs, hundreds of thousands of whom have been sent to "re-education" camps and reportedly subjected to brainwashing, humiliation, forced sterilisation and torture, is enabled by facial recognition software. It has been described as the first known case of AI-driven ethnic cleansing. But despite mounting international condemnation of Xinjiang’s policing, Huawei has regularly promoted its work with the province’s Public Security Bureau as company “success cases”.

According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), Huawei’s work in the region includes the development of the public security cloud used by law enforcement agencies. “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,” recounts the ASPI report, which described the programme as “code for a police surveillance system”.

In a letter last year the chair of parliament’s science and technology select committee, Norman Lamb, wrote that “there may well be geopolitical or ethical grounds for the government to decide to enact a ban on Huawei’s equipment”. “John Suffolk [Huawei’s global cyber security and privacy officer],” Lamb added, "indicated that Huawei seeks only to ‘operate within the law’ and ‘not create and moral judgements on what we think is right or wrong’. Unfortunately, this position could permit the appalling treatment of Muslims in Western China.”

Writing for Conservative Home earlier this month the Conservative MP and former chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Tom Tugendhat, also raised concerns about Huawei’s human rights record. “It is vital that we do our human rights due diligence on companies bidding for massive public contracts, but there is precious little evidence that this critical question regarding Huawei is even on the agenda,” he said.

Huawei has not denied supplying technology to Xinjiang’s public security bureaus, but claims to have done so through third parties. This is an apparent contradiction of the ASPI report, which claims the company worked directly with the agencies. Speaking to a Canadian radio station earlier this week, Huawei’s vice-president of corporate affairs in Canada defended the work: “We sell technology all around the world, but we don’t operate it. We don’t know how our customers choose to operate it.”

Such excuses are unlikely to win over those who are concerned about the ongoing persecution of the Uighur people, especially when Huawei has boasted about its work in Xinjiang. But the British ministers tasked with adjudicating on Huawei’s future role in the UK appear to have failed to take into account the human rights issues surrounding the tech giant. None have made public statements on the matter in the wake of Lamb’s letter or a further intervention by the foreign affairs committee.

Britain’s global influence is expected to diminish as we leave the European Union. But procurement and regulation are two areas in which the UK can still wield influence over corporations such as Huawei, which use their work in Britain to expand their presence in other Western markets. As it turns out, however, Brexit is making it harder for ministers to do so. If the UK is to strengthen its ties with Beijing after leaving the EU, Huawei is likely to play a key role, making the prospect of an outright ban on its 5G telecoms equipment increasingly unlikely. In the meantime, Huawei’s work building surveillance systems for authoritarian leaders in the developing world will continue to go unchecked.

Oscar Williams is editor of the New Statesman's sister site NSTech.