Mapping more of China’s tech giants: AI and surveillance

Nov 29, 2019 by

This second report accompanies the Mapping China’s Technology Giants website.

Read our first report on the original dataset here. It’s one of ASPI’s most read reports of all time.

Executive summary

ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre has updated the public database that maps the global expansion of key Chinese technology companies. This update adds a further 11 companies and organisations: iFlytek, Megvii, ByteDance (which owns TikTok), SenseTime, YITU, CloudWalk, DJI, Meiya Pico, Dahua, Uniview and BeiDou.

Our public database now maps 23 companies and organisations and is visualised through our interactive website, Mapping China’s Technology Giants. The website seeks to give policymakers, academics, journalists, government officials and other interested readers a more holistic picture of the increasingly global reach of China’s tech giants. The response to phase 1 of this project—it quickly became one of ASPI’s most read products—suggests that the current lack of transparency about some of these companies’ operations and governance arrangements has created a gap this database is helping to fill.

This update adds companies working mainly in the artificial intelligence (AI) and surveillance tech sectors. SenseTime, for example, is one of the world’s most valuable AI start-ups. iFlytek is a partially state-owned speech recognition company. Meiya Pico is a digital forensics and security company that created media headlines in 2019 because of its monitoring mobile app MFSocket.1 In addition, we’ve added DJI, which specialises in drone technologies, and BeiDou, which isn’t a company but the Chinese Government’s satellite navigation system.

We also added ByteDance—an internet technology company perhaps best known internationally for its video app, TikTok, which is popular with teenagers around the world. TikTok is also attracting public and media scrutiny in the US over national security implications, the use of US citizens’ data and allegations of censorship, including shadow banning (the down-ranking of particular topics via the app’s algorithm so users don’t see certain topics in their feed).

Company overviews now include a summary of their activities in Xinjiang.2 For some companies, including ByteDance and Huawei, we are including evidence of their work in Xinjiang that has not being reported publicly before. For most of these companies, the surveillance technologies and techniques being rolled out abroad—often funded by loans from the Export–Import Bank of China (China Eximbank)3—have long been used on Chinese citizens, and especially on the Uyghur and other minority populations in Xinjiang, where an estimated 1.5 million people are being arbitrarily held in detention centres.4 Some of these companies have actively and repeatedly obscured their work in Xinjiang, including in hearings with foreign parliamentary committees. This project now includes evidence and analysis of those activities in order to foster greater transparency about their engagement in human rights abuses or ethically questionable activities in the same way Western firms are held to account by Western media and civil society actors, as they should be.

In this report, we include a number of case studies in which we delve deeper into parts of the dataset. This includes case studies on TikTok as a vector for censorship and surveillance, BeiDou’s satellite and space race and CloudWalk’s various AI, biometric data and facial recognition partnerships with the Zimbabwean Government. We also include a case study on Meiya Pico’s work with China’s Public Security Ministry on Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) aid projects in Southeast Asia and Central Asia.

Those projects include the construction of digital forensics labs and cyber capacity training, including for police forces across Asia.

We have also investigated the role that foreign investment plays in the global expansion of some of these companies, particularly in China’s surveillance and public security sector.

The updated database

Our public database now maps out 23 companies and organisations. On the Mapping China’s Technology Giants website you’ll find a dataset that geo-codes and analyses major points of overseas presence, including 5G relationships; ‘smart cities’ and ‘public security’ solutions; surveillance relationships; research and university partnerships; submarine cables; terrestrial cables; significant telecommunications and ICT projects; and foreign investment. The website does not map out products and services, such as equipment sales.

Previously, in April 2019, we mapped companies working across the internet, telecommunications and biotech sectors, including Huawei, Tencent, Alibaba, Baidu, Hikvision, China Electronics Technology Group (CETC), ZTE, China Mobile, China Telecom, China Unicom, Wuxi AppTec Group and BGI. This dataset has also been updated, and new data points have been added for those companies, including on 5G relationships, smart cities, R&D labs and data centres.

At the time of release this updated research project now maps and tracks:

  • 26,000+ data points that have helped to geo-locate 2,500+ points of overseas presence for the 23 companies
  • 447 university and research partnerships, including 195+ Huawei Seeds for the Future university partnerships
  • 115 smart city or public security solution projects, most of which are in Europe, South America and Africa
  • 88 5G relationships in 45 countries
  • 295 surveillance relationships in 96 countries
  • 145 R&D labs, the greatest concentration of which is in Europe
  • 63 undersea cables, 20 leased cables and 49 terrestrial cables
  • 208 data centres and 342 telecommunications and ICT projects spread across the world.

Other updates have also been made to the website, often in response to valuable feedback from policymakers, researchers and journalists. Updates have been made to the following:

  • The landing ‘splash page’5
  • How to use this tool6
  • Glossary.7

Terrestrial cables have now been added and can be searched through the filter bar (via ‘Overseas presence’)

The original report that accompanied the launch of the project was translated into Mandarin in August 2019.

In addition to this dataset, each company has its own web page, which includes an overview of the company and a summary of its activities with the Chinese party-state. The overviews now include a summary of each company’s activities in Xinjiang. This research was added for a number of reasons.

First, we needed to compile the information in one place for journalists, civil society groups and governments. Second, these companies aren’t held to account by China’s media and civil society groups, and it’s clear that many have obscured their activities in Xinjiang. Some have even provided incorrect information in response to direct questions from foreign governments. For example, a Huawei executive told the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on 10 June 2019 that Huawei’s activities in Xinjiang occurred only via ‘third parties:’8

Chair Sir Norman Lamb: But do you have products and services in Xinjiang Province in terms of some sort of contractual relationship with the provincial government?

Huawei Executive: Our contracts are with the third parties. It is not something we do directly.

That’s not correct. Huawei works directly with the Chinese Government’s Public Security Bureau in Xinjiang on a range of projects. Evidence for this—and similar—work can now be found via each company’s dedicated Mapping China’s Technology Giants web page and is also analysed below.

Methodology

ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre began this research project due to a lack of publicly available quantitative and qualitative data, especially in English, on the overseas activities of these key technology companies. Some of the companies disclose little in the way of policies that affect data, security, privacy, freedom of expression and censorship. What information is available is spread across a wide range of sources and hasn’t been compiled in one location. In-depth analysis of the available sources also requires Chinese-language capabilities and an understanding of other issues, such as the relationships the companies have with the state and how Chinese state financing structures work.

For example, some of the companies, especially Huawei, conduct a lot of their work in developing countries through China Eximbank loans. Importantly, the use of internet and other archiving services is vital, as Chinese web pages are often moved, altered or deleted.

This research relied on open-source data collection that took place primarily in English and Chinese. Data sources included company websites, corporate information, tenders, media reporting, databases and other public sources.

The following companies—which work across the telecommunications, technology, internet, surveillance, AI and biotech sectors—are now present on the Mapping China’s Technology Giants website (new additions are bold):

  • Alibaba
  • Baidu
  • BeiDou
  • BGI
  • ByteDance
  • China Electronics Technology Group (CETC)
  • China Mobile
  • China Telecom
  • China Unicom
  • CloudWalk
  • Dahua
  • DJI
  • Hikvision (a subsidiary of CETC)
  • Huawei
  • iFlytek
  • Megvii
  • Meiya Pico
  • SenseTime
  • Tencent
  • Uniview
  • WuXi AppTec Group
  • YITU
  • ZTE.

The size and complexity of these companies, and the speed at which they’re expanding, mean that this dataset will inevitably be incomplete. For that reason, we encourage researchers, journalists, experts and members of the public to continue to contribute and submit data via the online platform in order to help make the dataset more complete over time.

For tips on how to get the most out of the map, navigate to ‘How to use this tool’ on the website. When you’re first presented with the map, all data points are displayed. Click the coloured icons and cables for more information. To navigate to the list of companies, click ‘View companies’ in the left blue panel.

There’s a filter bar at the bottom of the screen. Click the items to select. To reset your search selection, click ‘Reset’ in the filter bar.

The yellow triangle icons on the map are data points of particular interest in which we invested additional research resources.

These companies differ in their size, scope and global presence

They may not be household names in the West, but the market size of many of the Chinese companies outlined in this report is larger than many of their more well-known counterparts outside China. iFlytek, a voice recognition tech company established in 1999, isn’t yet a household name outside China but has 70% of the Chinese voice recognition market and a market capitalisation of Ұ63 billion (US$9.2 billion). Newcomer ByteDance, an internet technology company with a focus on machine-learning-enabled content platforms, was established only in 2012 but is already valued at around US$78 billion, making it the world’s most valuable start-up.

Many of the companies outlined in this report have skyrocketed in value by capitalising on China’s surge in security spending in Xinjiang and elsewhere as a large, sprawling surveillance apparatus is constructed. Some have been, in effect, conscripted into spearheading the development of AI in the country—a goal of particular strategic importance to the party-state.

Other companies we examine in this report, such as Dahua Technology, Megvii and Uniview, aren’t well known but have significant global footprints. Dahua, for example, is one of the world’s largest security camera manufacturers. Between them Hikvision9 and Dahua supply around one-third of the global market for security cameras and related goods, such as digital video recorders.10

All Chinese tech companies have deep ties to the Chinese state security apparatus, but, perhaps more than the others, the companies in this report occupy a space in which the lines between the commercial imperatives of private companies (and some state-backed companies) and the strategic imperatives of the party-state are blurred.

Several of the companies we examine—including iFlytek, SenseTime, Megvii and Yitu—have been designated as official ‘AI Champions’ by the party-state, alongside Huawei, Hikvision and the ‘BATs’ (Baidu,11 Alibaba12 and Tencent;13) which were featured in our previous report. These ‘champions’, having been identified as possessing “core technologies”, have been selected to spearhead AI development in the country, with the aim of overtaking the US in AI by 2030.14

Gregory C Allen, writing for the Center for a New American Security, cited SenseTime executives as saying the title:

… gave the companies privileged positions for national technical standards-setting and also was intended to give the companies confidence that they would not be threatened with competition from state-owned enterprises.15

Speaking in December 2018, SenseTime co-founder Xu Bing alluded to the uniqueness of this privileged position:

We are very lucky to be a private company working at a technology that will be critical for the next two decades. Historically, governments would dominate nuclear, rocket, and comparable technologies and not trust private companies.16

Historically, the party-state drew on the power of a few state-owned enterprises to help it achieve its strategic goals. But in order to become a world leader in AI by 2025—an express aim of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)— the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has demonstrated its ability to move away from those cumbersome organisations in favour of smaller, more agile companies not wholly owned by the state. This has proven to be a highly successful—and mutually beneficial—model.

Chinese AI and surveillance companies benefit from a highly favourable regulatory environment in which concerns over the potential use of invasive systems of surveillance to erode civil liberties are largely and substantively ignored by design, although they’re sometimes discussed in the Chinese media.17

Companies that we examine in this report, such as YITU, CloudWalk, iFlytek and SenseTime, have access to enormous customer databases that are generating huge amounts of proprietary data—the essential ingredient for improving AI and machine-learning algorithms.

AI giant SenseTime has access to a database of more than 2 billion images, at least some of which, SenseTime CEO Xu Li told Quartz,18 come from various government agencies, giving the company a distinct advantage over its foreign competitors.

The global expansion of these companies—from research partnerships with foreign universities through to the development of operational ‘smart city’ or ‘public security’ projects—raises important questions about the geostrategic, political and human rights implications of their work.

Users of the website will now find more than 26,000 datapoints that have helped to geo-locate 2,500+ points of overseas presence for the 23 companies and organisations. But it’s important to note that the presence of the companies’ products in overseas markets is far larger than the map can indicate.

Many of the companies’ relationships are business to business, and their products are integrated as part of other companies’ solutions. For example, iFlytek’s speech recognition software is used in the voice assistant in Huawei smartphones, and YITU provides its facial recognition and traffic monitoring software to Huawei’s smart cities solutions. So, while Huawei’s smart city solutions are mapped, the companies that provide certain technologies and component parts for smart cities can’t always be captured.

This illustrates a complex problem associated with data and privacy protection in ‘internet of things’ devices that is tackled in Dr Samantha Hoffman’s ASPI report Engineering global consent: the Chinese Communist Party’s data-driven power expansion.19 Companies can claim that they don’t misuse the data that their products collect, but those claims don’t always take into account how component-part manufacturers whose technologies are integrated into smart cities and public security services, for example, collect and use citizens’ data.

TikTok as a vector for censorship and surveillance

Source: Mapping more of China’s tech giants: AI and surveillance | Australian Strategic Policy Institute | ASPI

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