By Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, Ina Fried
April 18, 2023
The booth of Hikvision at China Railway Expo City in Qingdao, Shandong province, China, on April 6. Photo: CFOTO/Future Publishing via Getty Images
Chinese surveillance giant Hikvision has repeatedly denied reports that the company is complicit in human rights abuses targeting Uyghurs in China's northwestern region of Xinjiang.
But new details from an internal review of its contracts with police agencies in the region reveal the company has known since at least 2020 that some of its Xinjiang contracts were a "problem" because they included language about targeting Uyghurs as a group, according to a recording of a recent private company meeting obtained by technology trade publication IPVM and exclusively shared with Axios.
Why it matters: The Chinese government is perpetrating an ongoing campaign of genocide and mass detention of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in the country's northwest region of Xinjiang.
Procurement documents reportedly show that Hikvision cameras have been installed in public spaces across Xinjiang and in mass detention facilities, and Hikvision cameras have captured footage that has led to the detention of Uyghurs.
Hikvision has also advertised that it offers biometric surveillance technology that can track ethnic minorities, including Uyghurs, though in 2020 the company stated its products no longer offer that capability.
Human rights groups and the U.S. and other governments have accused Hikvision of participating in human rights abuses in Xinjiang — allegations the surveillance giant has rejected.
Background: In January 2019, as scrutiny of the company's Xinjiang operations grew, Hikvision hired Richard-Pierre Prosper, a lawyer and former U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues in the George W. Bush administration, to conduct an internal investigation of its Xinjiang contracts. Prosper is currently a lawyer for D.C.-based legal and lobbying firm ArentFox Schiff.
In its 2020 ESG public report, Hikvision offered a one-sentence summary of Prosper's review, quoting it as saying: “We do not find that Hikvision entered into the five projects in Xinjiang with the intent to knowingly engage in human rights abuses or find that Hikvision knowingly or intentionally committed human rights abuses itself or that it acted in willful disregard.”
When facing criticism for its activities in Xinjiang, Hikvision has repeatedly pointed to its retention of an "internationally respected war crimes investigator" as evidence of the company's sincere desire to comply with international human rights standards.
ArentFox Schiff did not respond to a request for comment.
Details: Prosper gave a talk on human rights compliance, which the company referred to as a "training" in an emailed statement to Axios, to Hikvision’s Australian company partners at the Hikvision Australia Global ESG Conference held near Sydney last month. Prosper's remarks contain previously unknown details from his report's findings.
Prosper says in the recording that the internal investigation's purpose was to assess "what was the company's responsibility and exposure" regarding human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Hikvision had bid on around 15 projects in Xinjiang and won contracts for five, Prosper says, and his team received at least 15,000 pages of related documents and reviewed about 5,000 "line by line."
"The most concerning on paper was the Moyu Project, which was down in the southern part of Xinjiang," Prosper says, referring to Xinjiang's Karakax County, a majority Uyghur region with numerous detention camps where leaked documents have shown that police detained Uyghurs for normal religious practices such as praying regularly and wearing a veil.
The Moyu project "was the most concerning because of the language in the contract," which Prosper says "identified Uyghurs" as a group to focus on and called for surveillance of "religious facilities.”
Prosper says in the recording that his team told Hikvision: "We're not going to absolve the company." He pointed to some of the contracts that included "concerning" language "looking at groups and not isolated to a criminal." Prosper says he told the company, "This is a problem."
Prosper says that after his team completed the review, they told Hikvision: “We don't think you were responsible, but there were some failings in the system where there's some flags you should have looked at.”
In the recording, Prosper also says Hikvision built the systems but then handed them over to China without knowing how the government intended to use them. But he provides no documenting evidence.
What they're saying: “As a global company, Hikvision takes human rights seriously and recognizes our social responsibilities. The company has publicly addressed this concern in its annual ESG Report, as concluded by Ambassador Pierre-Richard Prosper after his team’s thorough due diligence," a Hikvision spokesperson told Axios in an emailed statement.
"The company is fully aware of the room for further improvement, evidenced by our efforts to enhance human rights compliance since 2018, of which this training is one of many measures the company has conducted. The company will continue to ensure that our employees and partners throughout the world are well versed in corporate governance and compliance.”
The Chinese government denies it has committed human rights violations in Xinjiang, instead casting its activities there as fighting terrorism and alleviating poverty.
In the recording, Prosper also casts Hikvision’s failure to identify this concerning language in the contracts in Xinjiang as an issue stemming from a “cultural divide” between East and West.
“We in the West, instinctively or initially, everything is human rights, individual rights,” Prosper says.
But China and other “Communist-based societies” emphasize “collective rights” instead of individual rights, and so the review team explained to Hikvision that individual rights “should be at the front of your mind,” Prosper says in the recording.
State of play: The U.S. government has taken steps to restrict Hikvision's business activities and financial reach.
The Federal Communications Commission in November said it would stop approving new device authorizations for companies, including Hikvision, that had been deemed to be national security threats.
On March 28, the U.S. government added five Hikvision subsidiaries in Xinjiang to the U.S. Commerce Department's Entity List, stating that they were tied to the company's police projects there. Hikvision was added to the entity list in 2019.
The FCC's move essentially keeps Hikvision's products from being sold in the U.S., while its inclusion on the Commerce Department's entity list keeps U.S. companies from selling goods and services to the company.
What to watch: In February, Hikvision sued the U.S. government and the FCC over a ban restricting the sale of Hikvision products in the U.S.