A U.S. State Department official called out Chinese tech firms such as Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent as Huawei “siblings” for their role in facilitating China’s pervasive state surveillance and global agenda.
“Chinese technology giants have become deeply enmeshed in Beijing’s system of oppression at home and its increasingly assertive strategic ambitions globally,” said Christopher Ford, the assistant secretary of state for international security and non-proliferation, at a Sept. 11 conference in Washington.
He explained that while companies such as Huawei, ZTE, Alibaba, Tencent, and Baidu are not state-owned enterprises, they nonetheless have “a deep record of cooperation and collaboration” with the Chinese regime’s security apparatus.
Huawei and ZTE have been punished by U.S. authorities on national security concerns and violations related to Iran sanctions. But this is the first time a top U.S. official has called out the trio of Chinese tech giants, Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent, known as BAT collectively in China.
Both Alibaba and Baidu are publicly listed in the United States, with a combined capital value of around $500 billion.
Ford noted that the difference between state-owned and private companies in China is only nominal, as the country’s National Intelligence Law stipulates that all entities must cooperate and support the Chinese regime’s intelligence efforts.
“Firms such as Huawei, Tencent, ZTE, Alibaba, and Baidu have no meaningful ability to tell the Chinese Communist Party ‘no’ if officials decide to ask for their assistance,” he said. “Chinese technology giants … function as at least de facto tools of the Chinese Communist Party when it matters most.”
Ford said that the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation that he works under recommended that Huawei be placed on the Department of Commerce’s entity list this May—effectively banning it from doing business with American firms.
He said the agency made the decision after the company and its CFO were indicted on federal charges of bank fraud and theft of trade secrets earlier in the year.
But the company’s shady behavior go beyond that. Ford said Huawei has helped police in Wujiang City, Jiangsu Province of China to install widespread mobile terminals that have inspected over 450,000 citizens and 80,000 vehicles since 2016.
He explained that other tech companies have also helped Chinese authorities build their surveillance systems.
In 2017, Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent were among the first batch of “national champions” to form China’s AI national team, piloting technologies that are vital to authorities’ monitoring and suppression of Uyghur and other Muslim minorities in the region of Xinjiang. The State Department estimates that over one million are currently detained inside concentration camps where they undergo political indoctrination.
Aiding China’s Military
In addition to aiding China in becoming an “authoritarian police state,” Chinese tech firms are also an integral part of China’s aggressive national strategy called “military-civil fusion,” according to Ford. In other words, they are developing technology that has both civil and military applications.
Baidu, the biggest search engine in China, has teamed up with state-owned defense contractor China Electronics Technology Group since 2018 to carry out “military-civil fusion” research to integrate big data and cloud computing into military command systems, according to Chinese media reports.
Alibaba, meanwhile, partnered with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the country’s top state-run research institute, in 2015 to establish a laboratory for advancing research in quantum technology that could be used in the military.
Ford noted that the “non-separateness” between China’s high-tech sector and the military makes it “very difficult and in many cases impossible” for foreign firms not to become entangled in the Chinese regime’s research efforts.
He urged international governments and companies to be aware of such risks when doing business with these Chinese tech giants.
“As these companies export their products and services to the rest of the world, the security and human rights problems associated with this ‘China Model’ are progressively exported with them,” Ford said.
China’s foreign ministry during a regular press briefing on Sept. 16 responded to Ford’s speech, protesting that it “arbitrarily smears and distorts” China’s policies and “paints China as a threat.”