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ChinAI Newsletter #29: Complicit - China's AI Unicorns and the Securitization of Xinjiang
Welcome to the ChinAI Newsletter!
These are Jeff Ding's weekly translations of writings on AI policy and strategy from Chinese thinkers. I'll also include general links to all things at the intersection of China and AI. Please share the subscription link if you think this stuff is cool. Here's an archive of all past issues. *Subscribers are welcome to share excerpts from these translations as long as my original translation is cited.
I'm a grad student at the University of Oxford where I'm the China lead for the Governance of AI Program, Future of Humanity Institute.
Leon Technology: A Pivotal Actor in the Securitization of Xinjiang, perhaps China, and even Central Asia
What is the role of China’s Security + AI industry in turning Xinjiang (a northwest province home to 12 million Uyghurs) into a surveillance state testbed? That’s the question this week’s newsletter explores. The first translation, from about a year ago, highlights the role played by Leon Technology (立昂技术) as a key integrator company. At the time, Leon claimed:
It was responsible for 50% of "safe city" projects in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang
It was responsible for construction and maintenance of surveillance infrastructure for 3000/5600km of Xinjiang’s border with neighboring countries
Read the full translation (linked below) to get a sense of how the reporter and Leon company representative talk about the Muslim population (e.g. the need to “bind” many people in rural areas of Kashgar). But here’s the key point that connects to the second translation: last year, Leon said to truly integrate the security apparatus, “This process lacks a very important technology - facial recognition,” and that the region “needs AI and facial recognition to free up a lot of police forces and manpower.” Better facial recognition = the 200+ workers and police officers Leon has monitoring screens all day in Urumqi can be freed up to, presumably, expand the security/surveillance state.
Also, I gave a little more context, cited some related literature, and compared to how Western counterparts are dealing with implications of facial recognition for policy and surveillance in this Twitter thread.
Leon + Sensetime Announce a Joint Venture; Face++ Involved in Xinjiang as Well
So, last year around this time, Leon expressed the need for facial recognition technology in Xinjiang. This issue’s second translation, from an article on the 5th China-Eurasia Security Expo held in Urumqi last month, highlights how this demand is being filled by China’s two most valuable AI/facial recognition startups, Sensetime and Megvii (Face++).
I used the same method as Issue #11 of the newsletter which looked at the 4th China-Eurasia Security Expo held in August 2017, in which Megvii (Face++) was announced as an official technical support unit of the Public Security Video Laboratory in Xinjiang. Now in the 5th iteration of the Expo, here are some important developments:
Leon Technology and Sensetime officially launched a joint venture company called Tang Li Technology. Leon invested 7.35 million RMB to get 49% of the shares, while Sensetime got 51% of the shares. This suggests that China’s darling AI startup Sensetime, which was just this past week announced as China’s 5th AI National Champion (joining BAT and iFlytek), will be involved with Leon’s ambitions in Xinjiang mentioned in the first translation —
the securitization of the border
the intensification of surveillance and informatization of “convenience police stations” in Kashgar, the largest Uyghur city (which Leon calls the “frontline of anti-terrorism”)
the expansion of monitoring to thousands of video access points in rural areas in Kashgar
Let’s not let Face++ off the hook either. They also participated in the expo, as did Hikvision, Dahua, Sailing Information Technology, Liantronics, as well as exhibitors from more than 20 countries and regions including the U.S., Germany, France, and nearly 100 government agencies, experts and procurement companies from more than 10 countries including Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
To conclude, Dear
Chinese AI startups w/ ambitions to go global (talking to you Face++, Sensetime)
Chinese private multinationals heavily invested in these startups (talking to you Alibaba)
U.S.-based suppliers of AI hardware (both for training and inference) to Face++, Sensetime (talking to you Nvidia, Qualcomm, etc.)
International investors in Face++ (talking to you SK Group) and Sensetime (talking to you Fidelity International, Qualcomm (again), Silver Lake Partners, Tiger Global Management):
Here’s how a UN human rights panel has described the securitization of Xinjiang: “Numerous reports of detention of large numbers of ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities held incommunicado and often for long periods, without being charged or tried, under the pretext of countering terrorism and religious extremism” and “mass surveillance disproportionately targeting ethnic Uighurs.” Do you want to be complicit in this?
This Week's ChinAI Links
Chinese Idiom of the Week: 分我杯羹 (fen1wo3bei1geng1) – to get a share of the meat stew, a metaphor to get a share of the profits or benefits. Used in the first translation in the context of getting a share of the large market in Xinjiang’s security industry.
Megha Rajagopalan’s excellent piece on China’s police state in Xinjiang was the only English-language coverage that mentioned Leon Technology. Here’s a video of her talk at CNAS from earlier this week on this subject.
China’s leaders are calling for more international collaboration on AI says this MIT Technology Review piece but I don’t see how this is a meaningful difference even in rhetoric (let alone substance) from vague calls for cooperation dating back to July 2017 State Council plan.
Mingli Shi for New America's DigiChina Initiative translates the key principles and criteria from China's Draft Privacy Impact Assessment Guide. Check out DigiChina’s upgraded monthly newsletter for more insights such as this one.
iFlytek accused of faking its simultaneous voice-to-text interpretation at a conference - good article on this from Sixth Tone.
Thank you for reading and engaging.
Shout out to everyone who is commenting on the translations - idea is to build up a community of people interested in this stuff. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jjding99