Former Official Accuses AT&T of Lobbying to Block Sanctions on Chinese State-Owned Telecom Firm

February 25, 2021 Updated: February 26, 2021

A former official accused AT&T of lobbying the Commerce Department to keep off a blacklist a Chinese state-owned telecom company that has allegedly helped Beijing repress ethnic Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region.

Former Commerce Department Undersecretary Corey Stewart told Fox News‘ “Tucker Carlson Tonight” on Feb. 24 that the department was “on the verge” of placing China Telecom on a trade blacklist known as the “entity list” before being contacted by an AT&T executive who urged officials not to go through with the move. American companies are barred from doing business with firms on the entity list without a license from the department.

Stewart’s allegations were initially reported by the National File.

In response, AT&T, which has a joint venture with China Telecom for its operations in China, confirmed that it opposed potential sanctions because it would mean U.S. companies in China would have to rely on Chinese state-run telephone companies for services, instead of AT&T or other American companies. It added that Chinese law compels U.S. telephone companies to partner with Chinese communications companies if they want to operate in China.

“We and other companies explained this to the Commerce Department and other government officials to inform their policy decision about potential unintended consequences of placing China Telecom on the entities list,” AT&T said in a statement on Wednesday.

Stewart, who served during the Trump administration, said the department was moving to sanction China Telecom after receiving intelligence that it was “using cell phone technology telecommunications technology to track minority populations in China to spy on them, and then to hand this information over to the China police state.”

The Chinese regime has detained more than 1 million Uyghur Muslim and other Muslim minorities in the far-western Xinjiang region, in a campaign that the Trump administration designated as genocide. A raft of Chinese companies and official bodies have been blacklisted by the United States over their roles in aiding the Chinese regime’s persecution in the region.

Stewart said the department was “contacted by Ed Gillespie, executive vice president of AT&T who urged us not to place China Telecom, despite these abuses, on the entity list.”

“Needless to say we were pretty much shocked by that,” he added.

The former official told the National File that as a result of the conversation the department decided to review the issue further.

“The career staff at the Commerce Department were clearly on a path to do this,” Stewart told Fox News. “If it does not happen, that will mean there was pressure from the Biden administration, put on it by AT&T to not put them on there.”

The Commerce Department declined to comment on the matter.

China Telecom was last year placed on a Pentagon list of companies owned or controlled by the Chinese military. Former President Donald Trump later issued an executive order banning U.S. investments in companies on this list, which took effect in January. As a result, the NYSE said it will delist China Telecom and two other Chinese telecom companies affected by the order.

The Chinese state-controlled company has also previously attracted scrutiny for diverting overseas internet traffic through China in several instances, raising concerns about whether the data was accessed by the Chinese regime.

This article was updated to include that the Commerce Department declined to comment. 

Follow Cathy on Twitter: @CathyHe_ET