Surveillance technology in China

NICK EICHER, HOST: This week we brought you the story of China’s efforts to undermine Taiwan. But today, we’ll tell you how the United States may be helping China’s human-rights crackdown.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: China has a long history of human-rights abuses. And two Republican lawmakers want to know if American tech companies are helping the Communist government surveil Chinese citizens it perceives as a threat.

That includes Christians.

EICHER: WORLD Radio’s Jim Henry has our story.

AUDIO: Church demolition

JIM HENRY, REPORTER: Chinese police use dynamite to destroy a 50,000 member evangelical  Christian church in Linfen, Shanxi Province, China, in January. 

Just two weeks ago, Chinese police confiscated Bibles and arrested 200 worshippers at Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu. The congregation had had gathered for a memorial service for those who died in a 2008 earthquake. 

That incident prompted a terse statement from State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, even in the midst of delicate trade negotiations. She said—quote— “We are deeply concerned by the Chinese government’s reported harassment of the Early Rain Covenant Church … we call on China to uphold its international commitments to promote respect for religious freedom.”

These reports come amid realizations that U.S. technology is helping China surveil and persecute its citizens. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross recently outlined part of the problem.

ROSS: China has forced technology transfers from companies wanting to sell to its vast market and it has stolen intellectual property. All of these abuses have been well-documented in the media, not fake news. 

At a panel discussion on promoting technology transfer to China, Michael O’Hanlon with the Brookings Institution conceded that China’s misuse of U.S. technology is a growing concern.

O’HANLON: Much of what President Trump’s trying to do towards China is actually justifiable, and not necessarily in every detail, but the general thrust of pushing back on China in particular.

And pushing back against China is what Senator Marco Rubio and Congressman Chris Smith want the Commerce Department to do, since it is responsible for regulating the sale of U.S. technology.

Rubio and Smith lead the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. It monitors China’s compliance with human rights.

In a letter to Commerce Secretary Ross this month, they asked for detail information on the sale of U.S. technology used by the Chinese government to surveil its citizens and what steps his department is taking to control exports of those products.

They wrote, “The ongoing abuses … are a clear example of how the government is using technology, including U.S.-made, to systematically crack down on its people.”

Paul Rosenzweig, former homeland security deputy assistant secretary during the second Bush administration, agrees.

ROSENZWEIG: The Chinese have announced essentially a plan to assign every citizen a loyalty grade, whether you’re a good Chinese person or not. And a lot of the analytics that go into that are things that were originated here in the United States. There can be no doubt that American technology is part and parcel of China’s surveillance state and anyone else’s.

Rosenzweig says U.S. technology has wound up in Syria, Saudi Arabia and other authoritarian countries. Those nations often purchase it legally for one purpose, but then modify and use it for another.

ROSENZWEIG: One of the things that we know for sure is that technology is basically neutral and the question is more about how it is implemented than it is about the tech itself. 

It would seem simple enough to block the sale of U.S. technology products to countries that would abuse it, but Rosenzweig says those products are basically ideas. And ideas can’t be stopped at the border.

ROSENZWEIG: It is very hard, if not impossible, to put technology, information technology, on an export control list. We can restrict the flow of hard goods. I know how to prohibit the prohibit the export of an airplane because we can stop it. But information is almost impossible to restrict in its flows.

For that reason, Rosenzweig doesn’t fault the U.S. government for failing to stop China from acquiring our information technology, and he suggests something of a free market approach that could at least make U.S. companies more careful with their technology.

U.S. consumers could decide not to buy products from companies that do business with China or other authoritarian countries.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Jim Henry.

(AP Photo/Andy Wong, File) In this Nov. 9, 2017, file photo, an American flag is flown next to the Chinese national emblem during a welcome ceremony for visiting U.S. President Donald Trump outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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