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The Unadvertised Cost of Doing Business with China

It’s a big market, with one Big Player, and some strange rules

Recently, I reported that U.S. technology is helping the Chinese government to racially profile people in the Xinjiang Province by providing DNA sequencing and identification technologies to the police in the Xinjiang Province.

Thermo Fisher Scientific is the leader in this type of technology and many other laboratory technologies. In the article, I noted that the company stopped selling their products to China when they were alerted as to how their DNA technology was used for racial profiling in Xinjiang:

“As the world leader in serving science, we recognize the importance of considering how our products and services are used – or may be used – by our customers. We undertake fact-specific assessments and have decided to cease all sales and servicing of our human identification technology in the Xinjiang region – a decision that is consistent with Thermo Fisher’s values, ethics code and policies,” the statement read.

Kiera Blessing, “Company with plant in Haverhill linked to China DNA project” at The Eagle Tribune (Feb. 20)

Professor Yves Moreau in the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Leuven has pointed out, however, that Thermo Fisher did not stop selling DNA sequencing materials to the Xinjiang province until after the company was pressured by the media and several U.S. Senators.

“But more importantly,” Professor Moreau says, “Thermo Fisher has only committed to stop sales of their human identification products in Xinjiang, NOT across China.” He says that while this is an important announcement because a company has acknowledged its responsibility for how the company’s product is being used by its customers, the announcement is meaningless since their products can be transferred throughout China.

Human Rights Watch reported that Thermo Fisher’s decision is important and necessary but not sufficient to curb the use of this technology for surveillance and identification purposes. For one thing, racial profiling using DNA technology extends beyond the Xinjiang province. As Professor Moreau points out, “Thermo Fisher has presented absolutely no plan of how it would ensure its technology is not misused by Chinese authorities.” I reached out to Thermo Fisher for comment but so far without success.

Itemizing the cost

With a population of 1.3 billion, China is a lucrative market and America’s largest trading partner. The country has been pushing to become the world leader in biotechnology and information technologies, and American tech companies want in on the action:

It is ludicrous to think that American tech firms will stop doing business in China. It is a hub of innovation, with legions of coders and endless fields of data. Amazon Web Services and Microsoft are setting up their own AI centres in Shanghai.

Google and the ethics of business n China” at Economist (April 4, 2019)

But, doing business with China comes with a cost, particularly because the government has tightened requirements that businesses comply with their rules. For one, tech companies must comply with the Great Firewall of China, the name given to the Chinese government’s censorship of sensitive topics online. These topics include democracy, human rights, sex, George Orwell’s 1984, and Winnie-the-Pooh (because the stuffed literary bear has been compared by some Chinese bloggers to their President). Such censorship, say many, minimizes the value of the internet.

As one Chinese commentator puts it,

At the very beginning, nobody – even in the west – could predict the internet would have so much to do with freedom of speech and that social media would develop in the way it has. They just understood it was a more efficient, fast and powerful means of communication.

But since we got the net and could write blogs – and now microblogs – people have started to share ideas, and a new sense of freedom has arisen

Ai Weiwei, “China’s censorship can never defeat the internet” at The Guardian (April 16, 2012)

So, when The Intercept reported that leaked documents showed that Google was working on a censored search engine app known as Dragonfly for the Chinese government, many within Google and outside protested the company’s project. Google had already been criticized for working with the Chinese government in 2010. There was at least one high-profile departure.

Google isn’t alone. According to Vox, despite China’s human rights abuses “Silicon Valley tech companies have shown a willingness to put aside their idealism or rationalize their decisions to court Beijing. LinkedIn, for example, has a presence in China because it agreed to block certain online content. Also,

In 2016, news surfaced that Facebook was building a censorship tool similar to Google’s Dragonfly project: It would allow a third-party to block certain Facebook posts in China in exchange for the government’s permission to operate the social media network there.

A backlash similar to the Dragonfly controversy ensued, raising concerns about the potential for government officials to use the platform to spy on dissidents and punish them. These concerns led several Facebook employees who worked on the project to resign. That project was in its early stages, too, and there’s no evidence that Facebook ever presented the tool to Chinese officials.

Alexa Fernandez Campbell, “Google’s censored search engine for China is sparking a moral crisis within the company” at Vox (September 25, 2019)

It comes down to a question of the extent to which the internet means interconnectedness with freedom or interconnectedness without it.

Further reading on high-tech surveillance in China by Heather Zeiger:

China: What You Didn’t Say Could Be Used Against You An AI voiceprint could be used to generate words never said.

In China, high-tech racial profiling is social policy. For an ethnic minority, a physical checkup includes blood samples, fingerprints, iris scans, and voice recordings. The Chinese government seeks a database of everyone in the country, not only to track individuals but to determine the ethnicity of those who run up against the law. 

The internet doesn’t free anyone by itself. China is testing 100% surveillance on the Uighurs, a strategically critical minority. 

Heather Zeiger

Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas, TX. She has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics and writes on the intersection of science, technology, and society. She also serves as a research analyst with The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. Heather writes for bioethics.com, Salvo Magazine, and her work has appeared in RelevantMercatorNet, Quartz, and The New Atlantis.

The Unadvertised Cost of Doing Business with China