SHANGHAI – The world has largely sat by for nearly two years as China detained more than 1 million people, mostly Muslims and members of minority ethnic groups, in re-education camps to force them to embrace the Communist Party.
Now, the Trump administration has taken the first public step by a major world government toward punishing Beijing. In doing so, it is opening up a new front in the already worsening relationship between Washington and Beijing: human rights and the dystopian world of digital surveillance.
Trump administration officials Monday placed eight Chinese companies and a number of police departments on a blacklist that forbids them to buy U.S.-made technology like microchips, software and other vital components. The companies it targeted are at the vanguard of China’s surveillance and artificial intelligence ambitions, with many of them selling increasingly sophisticated systems used by governments to track people.
The White House cited their business in Xinjiang, a region of northwestern China that is home to a largely Muslim minority group known as the Uighurs. The U.S. government says more than 1 million ethnic Uighurs and other minorities have been locked in detention camps there.
The new entrants to the blacklist were announced just days before trade talks were set to begin between U.S. and Chinese officials, likely putting a chill over the negotiations.
More broadly, it signals the White House’s willingness to take aim at China’s technological dreams. China has plowed billions of dollars into companies developing advanced hardware and software to catch up with the United States. Some of the companies added to the list Monday are among the world’s most valuable artificial-intelligence startups.
Much of that technology can be used to track people. That includes smartphone tracking, voice-pattern identification and systems that track individuals across cities through powerful cameras. Washington officials have grown increasingly worried about China’s ambitions to export its systems elsewhere, including places known for human rights abuses.
The immediate effect on the Chinese companies is likely to be minimal because many have stockpiled essential supplies, but they could feel increasing pain if they stay on the blacklist for months or years.
“This is an important first step in making some of the companies that have benefited the most from the re-education system in Xinjiang feel the consequences of their actions,” said Darren Byler, an anthropologist at the University of Washington who studies the plight of the Uighurs.
He said the move signaled that abuse of minority groups in Xinjiang “is real and justifies a political and economic response.”
It is also a potentially groundbreaking use of a powerful tool that the U.S. government typically uses against terrorists.
“As far as I know, it was the first time Commerce explicitly cited human rights as a foreign policy interest of the U.S. for purposes of export controls,” said Julian Ku, a professor of constitutional and international law at Hofstra University, referring to the Department of Commerce. “This is not an implausible reading of the regulations, but it is new and has potentially very broad applicability.”