by Jerry Dunleavy
January 28, 2022
The official translation services provider for the Beijing Olympics has been blacklisted by the United States for helping the Chinese Communist Party spy on Uyghur Muslims.
Known as iFlytek, the voice recognition firm has a long history of assisting China’s Ministry of Security in Xinjiang and elsewhere. The company announced in September 2019 that it was designated the “Official Automated Translation Software Exclusive Supplier of Beijing 2022.”
“We aim to introduce an accessible and barrier-free Olympics with regards to communication,” it said at the time.
The company's presence at the Olympics is yet another example of how U.S. and international athletes will likely be forced to use technology and products linked to CCP repression, and iFlytek might be used to spy on Olympic participants and attendees too.
The Commerce Department said in October 2019 that iFlytek was among more than two dozen Chinese entities added to a U.S. blacklist, saying they were “implicated in human rights violations and abuses in the implementation of China's campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, and high-technology surveillance against Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups.”
The U.S. says the CCP is conducting a genocide against the Uyghurs.
The selection of the blacklisted and Huawei-linked firm was made by China and not the International Olympic Committee, though the IOC itself has partnerships with companies that have been linked to the Chinese government, implicated in using forced Uyghur labor in Xinjiang, and faced U.S. scrutiny as national security threats.
Liu Qingfeng, iFlytek's founder and CEO, is also a deputy to the National People’s Congress, the CCP’s rubber-stamp national legislature.
The company said the translation services announcement ceremony was held at the Beijing 2022 Organizing Committee’s main campus. Liu said that “we are confident that our technologies will help to deliver our voices and stories, and ultimately our overall images as a nation.”
In 2021, iFlytek also provided translation services at the Tokyo Olympics, giving a hint of its plans for Beijing in a September press release. The company said that “behind the scenes a small ‘translation tool’ gained attention amongst the reporters in attendance” and claimed that “it not only accompanied them throughout the Olympic Village, but also aided in interviews and communication.”
A number of congressional Republicans condemned iFlytek’s involvement with the Olympics.
The firm has long received state support and recognition from China's government. The company was named a national “AI champion” by the Ministry of Science and Technology in 2018.
There is significant evidence that iFlytek helps Chinese authorities hunt down people.
One Chinese outlet reported in 2014 that Liu “said that the use of big data technology to counter terrorism has become an international trend” and that his company could help with that.
Fu Liting, the marketing director of the Public Security Division at the Smart City Business Group of iFlytek, told the CCP-run China Daily that “we work with the police by applying our artificial intelligence.” He told the outlet the company has worked with police in the Chinese cities of Anhui and Shanghai since 2015 and that "we've begun expanding the application to public security departments in more than 10 provinces.” Fu pointed to iFlytek’s AI robot "cop assistant" and said the company hoped to have its equipment used by police in 200 cities.
Human Rights Watch said in 2017 that iFlytek says it helped China’s Ministry of Public Security build a national voice pattern database and set up a ministry laboratory in AI voice technology to “solve cases” in Xinjiang and Tibet. The watchdog group said the company “is also the designated supplier of voice pattern collection systems purchased by Xinjiang and Anhui police bureaus.”
The translation provider has collaborated with China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom for years, all of which have been blacklisted by the U.S., with China Unicom Beijing — also an exclusive Olympics provider.
The U.S. National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence stated in 2021 that “national champion” firms such as iFlytek help “lead development of AI technologies at home" and "advance state-directed priorities that feed military and security programs."
Liu reportedly responded to the U.S. blacklist by saying, “There is no force that can stop our confidence and pace in building a beautiful world with artificial intelligence!” He also vowed that “we will not be strangled.”
The company said its business grew by 66% in 2020. Liu told the Chinese state-run Global Times in 2020 that the blacklist had not slowed it down and touted his partnership with Huawei.
The 2018 magazine article shared by Huawei asserted that “iFlytek and Huawei have formed a strategic partnership to develop practical applications for voice and AI technology.”
The Washington Post revealed in December that Huawei, as part of a pitch to assist Chinese authorities in analyzing voices for “national security” purposes, made slides showing that an “iFlytek Voiceprint Management Platform” (developed by both Huawei and iFlytek) could identify individuals through a massive “voiceprint” database.
The Congressional-Executive Commission on China said in 2019 that “Chinese security authorities continued to work with domestic companies," including iFlytek, “to expand the reach and analytical power of government surveillance systems.”