Lawmakers Say U.S. Tech Is Being Used in Abusive Chinese Crackdowns

A police officer on the beat in China's western Xinjiang region. PHOTO: NG HAN GUAN/ASSOCIATED PRESS

By Dan Strumpf and Natasha Khan
Updated May 15, 2018 7:06 p.m. ET

Two members of Congress are urging the Commerce Department to consider toughening export controls on U.S. companies whose technologies they say are being used for state surveillance of citizens in China that enables human rights abuses.

In a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, the Republican heads of the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China, ask whether the agency is “tracking the sale of equipment and technology by U.S. companies that may be used by Chinese police and other security agencies for the surveillance and detention of individuals.”

Mr. Rubio and Mr. Smith wrote that they had particular concerns about the use of U.S. technology in policing the country’s restive Xinjiang province, where police have rolled out one of the most extensive state surveillance programs ever built. They said “ongoing abuses” in Xinjiang “are a clear example of how the government is using technology, including U.S. made, to systematically crackdown on its people.”

The Wall Street Journal has over the past year documented China’s expanding, and increasingly high-tech, surveillance state.Across China, police are harnessing tools such as facial-recognition technology, voice prints and biometric-gathering techniques to better monitor the country’s 1.4 billion people.

The letter aims to focus interest among Washington policy makers on the role that U.S. technology is playing in the monitoring of Chinese citizens. The commission is composed of 15 members of Congress and is charged with monitoring human rights and rule of law in China. The letter was sent to Mr. Ross on May 9 but hasn’t been previously reported.

A Commerce Department spokesman said the department has received the letter and is currently reviewing it.

Chinese companies rely on U.S. suppliers for high-tech DNA sequencers as well as microchips and other components needed to build artificial-intelligence equipment used for state surveillance.

Companies that sell such products have escaped scrutiny, even as the tech sector has emerged as a front line in the growing U.S.-China trade battle. The dispute has nearly felled ZTE Corp., a Chinese telecom firm currently banned from receiving U.S. exports for violating a settlement over its earlier sanctions-busting sales to Iran and North Korea.

The letter zeroes in on technology used in Xinjiang and made by Thermo Fisher ScientificInc., a Waltham, Mass.-based manufacturer of laboratory equipment. According to the letter, Thermo Fisher has been identified by Human Rights Watch as selling DNA sequencers “with advanced microprocessors” under its Applied Biosystems Genetic Analyzer brand to police across China.

Thermo Fisher, in an emailed response to questions, said it follows “rigorous trade export policies,” and works with governments “to contribute to good global policy overall.”

Few locations in China are as extensively surveilled as Xinjiang, a province on China’s western frontier where police are focused on rooting out a violent separatist movement by some members of the Muslim Uighur minority. The Journal reported in December that Xinjiang is home to state-of-the-art social control measures, the use of which fall most heavily on Uighurs.

In a December report, New York-based Human Rights Watch said Chinese authorities in Xinjiang were collecting DNA samples, fingerprints, iris scans, and blood types of all residents between the age of 12 and 65 in the region, expanding on a previous policy which restricted collection of these biometric data to passport applicants. In that report, Human Rights Watch identified Thermo Fisher as a supplier of some DNA sequencers to the Xinjiang police.

The same month, the Journal reported that all across China, police gather blood and saliva samples from many citizens who aren’t criminals, sometimes resorting to trickery to get the task done. Chinese police have a goal of almost doubling China’s current DNA database to 100 million records by 2020, according to the Journal’s examination of documents from police departments across China.

In February, Mr. Rubio sent a letter to Thermo Fisher raising concerns and urging the company to ensure that its products aren’t being misused.

The recent letter from Messrs. Rubio and Smith asks Mr. Ross to consider whether more scrutiny is needed over the export of “dual-use” technology—referring to items with both peaceful and military applications—and whether new legislation is needed to revise U.S. export-control rules to keep up with “the rapid evolution of technology.”

The export of dual-use technology sometimes requires a license from the Commerce Department depending on its destination and use. The letter didn’t cite any other companies by name, though it expresses broad concern about technology made by U.S. companies used in Chinese surveillance.

While efforts have been made to modernize U.S. export-control rules in the last several years, “there hasn’t been a focused attention on identifying the range of emergent technologies that could be used to monitor, surveil and repress human populations,” said Chris Timura, an international trade attorney at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher who specializes in export controls.

A number of U.S. technology companies have sought to capitalize on the rapid expansion of domestic surveillance in China, the world’s biggest market for surveillance equipment, according to IHS-Markit, a research firm. San Diego-based Qualcomm Inc. has marketed its semiconductors for use in surveillance cameras in China.

It is also an investor in SenseTime Group Ltd.., one of China’s largest startups focusing on artificial intelligence and a developer of facial-recognition software widely used by Chinese police. The company has identified surveillance cameras as part of the emerging “internet-of-things” market, which Qualcomm has embraced. Qualcomm didn’t respond to a request for comment on export- control issues raised in the letter.

Write to Dan Strumpf at

Appeared in the May 16, 2018, print edition as 'U.S. Urged to Curb Sale of Surveillance Technology to China.'