By JIMMY QUINN
June 28, 2022
The People's Republic of China flag and the U.S. flag fly on a lamp post along Pennsylvania Avenue near the U.S. Capitol.(Hyungwon Kang/Reuters)
A chief of staff to former Democratic Senator Harry Reid registered to lobby for Hikvision, the Chinese surveillance firm under U.S. sanctions for its role in the Uyghur genocide. But he registered under the Lobbying Disclosure Act — not as a foreign agent — despite Hikvision’s significant Chinese Communist Party and People’s Liberation Army ties.
Drew Willison, the former staffer, registered to represent Hikvision’s U.S. subsidiary last Thursday, according to a Lobbying Disclosure Act filing. According to the disclosure, which Legistorm first reported on, Willison’s contract began on May 15. It’s not clear how much Hikvision is paying the former Senate staffer.
Despite its ties to the Chinese military-industrial complex, Hikvision is one of the largest video-surveillance providers in the world. But its ubiquitous presence — in 2017 it had 12 percent of the North American market, with the Atlantic reporting that it had over 750,000 devices in the U.S. alone — masks its malign activities.
The firm is subject to several U.S.-government restrictions over its role in the mass-surveillance state that the Chinese Communist Party constructed in Xinjiang. In January 2020, the State Department determined that this surveillance scheme, among other acts, constituted an ongoing crime against humanity.
In October 2019, the Commerce Department blocked American businesses from exporting to Hikvision because it has “been implicated in human rights violations and abuses in the implementation of China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, and high-technology surveillance against Uyghurs Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups” in the Xinjiang region.
In addition, the Trump administration labeled Hikvision as a Chinese-military company, a move that ultimately prohibited American investors from holding stock in the firm.
While Hikvision contested the allegation that it is linked to the Chinese military, last May, the Wall Street Journal and the video-surveillance trade group IPVM found that Hikvision was connected to Chinese-military drone training and missile-system research.
Willison disclosed that he would lobby against a 2019 provision barring the military from using Hikvision products, as well as “other potential legislation.”
It’s unclear whether Willison will lobby the executive branch against other expected regulatory action. The Biden administration is reportedly considering a move to add the company to the Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Nationals List, which would block Americans from conducting any transactions with Hikvision.
That move is expected to have an outsized impact on the company’s operations around the world.
Before serving as Reid’s chief of staff starting in 2015, Willison was briefly the nonpartisan Senate sergeant-at-arms, and served in a variety of different staff roles on congressional committees.
Mike Wessel, a commissioner at the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, slammed Willison’s decision to work for Hikvision.
“Trump and Biden both acted against the company,” wrote Wessel, a U.S. government official. “Why would a former Senate official with knowledge on security matters agree to lobby for CCP-influenced company?”
A number of former lawmakers have also lobbied for Hikvision.
After a significant public outcry last year, former senator Barbara Boxer, who briefly signed up to work for Hikvision through her role at Mercury Public Affairs, a lobbying outfit, de-registered. Other former lawmakers, including David Vitter and Tony Moffet, are still representing Hikivision.
What’s noteworthy about Willison’s registration is that he registered under the Lobbying Disclosure Act and not the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which has stronger disclosure requirements.
Hikvision has significant ties to the Chinese Communist Party. The company’s controlling shareholder, CETHIK, is a state-controlled firm which is part of the party’s united front political influence network.
Willison joins former congressional staffers Michael Borden and Tracey Laturner in lobbying for Hikvision through the law firm Sidley Austin. In the first quarter of 2022, the firm disclosed a $500,000 contract with Hikivision under the Lobbying Disclosure Act.
Vitter, however, has registered as a foreign agent, under FARA, for his own Hikvision lobbying work.