US Congressmen Ask Intel, Nvidia About Their Chips Potentially Being Used for Human Rights Violations in Xinjiang

December 9, 2020 Updated: December 17, 2020

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) are questioning U.S. chipmakers Intel and Nvidia, about their semiconductor chips allegedly being used in Chinese computing systems to conduct mass surveillance in far-western China’s Xinjiang region.

The two congressmen raised several questions in two letters to Bob Swan and Jensen Huang, who are the chief executive officers of Intel and Nvidia, respectively, according to a Dec. 8 statement.

The letters pointed to a recent New York Times article, which alleged that Intel and Nvidia chips were being used in the Urumqi Cloud Computing Center (UCCC), a complex built by the Chinese company Sugon, a supplier to the Chinese military, and where Xinjiang authorities process surveillance camera footage. The complex houses some of the world’s most powerful computers.

Citing Sugon’s official website, the Times article pointed out that authorities use the UCCC to conduct “predictive policing.” The two lawmakers argued this meant that the center was “preventatively identifying behaviors considered dangerous or disloyal to the Chinese Communist Party.”

Sugon has close ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). According to the company’s articles of corporation published in 2019, the company has its own Party committee, which oversees that the company comply with the Party’s policies. The committee would also lead the company’s overall “thought political work.”

Between 900,000 and 1.8 million Muslim ethnic minorities, including Uyghurs, have been detained in more than 1,300 concentration camps in Xinjiang, according to a 2020 report published by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent, bipartisan federal commission.

Since October last year, the Commerce Department has added 48 Chinese companies and government agencies to the U.S. entity list, over their involvement in human rights violations in Xinjiang, where the local population is heavily monitored and suppressed. Among the blacklisted companies are surveillance equipment manufacturer Hikvision and artificial intelligence firm SenseTime Group.

In June last year, Sugon was among several Chinese companies placed on the entity list for posing risks to American national security or foreign policy interests. According to the Commerce Department, Sugon publicly acknowledged that their supercomputers had military applications.

American companies are banned from doing business with blacklisted companies, unless they obtain a special government license.

In the two letters, the lawmakers asked whether Intel or Nvidia was aware that its products were being sold to companies on the entity list, though they did not name those firms. They also asked if the two chipmakers perform any procedures to ensure their products are not used for human rights abuses, before selling them to Chinese entities.

“To what extent was your company aware that your products would be used to support the operations and activities of the Ministry of Public Security, the Ministry of State Security, and the People’s Armed Police?” the lawmakers asked.

Nvidia told the New York Times that Sugon hasn’t been a significant Nvidia customer” since last year’s ban.

Intel spokesman William Moss said in a statement that “the company does not tolerate its products being used to violate human rights and when the company becomes aware of such a concern it ceases or restricts business with third parties until it has confidence its products are not used to commit such violations.” The firm told New York Times that it no longer sells semiconductors for supercomputers to Sugon.

Rubio and McGovern are the co-chairs of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), which monitors human rights in China.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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