Chinese Corporate Giants Caught Up In Racial Discrimination

Chinese e-commerce corporate giants, Alibaba and Huawei, are making headlines for their link to racially discriminatory practices. Following reports from United States-based video surveillance group IPVM claiming that new facial recognition technology can be used for identifying Uyghur minorities, both companies were forced to hastily respond to the charge. Soon after the report began to circulate, any mention of Uyghurs in the companies’ software disappeared.

Alibaba describes their Cloud Shield system as software that “detects and recognizes text, pictures, videos, and voices containing pornography, politics, violent terrorism, advertisements, and spam, and provides verification, marking, custom configuration and other capabilities.” The company, the largest cloud computing seller in China and the fourth largest worldwide, forbade the use of its technology for racial discrimination. Alibaba is dismayed that their Cloud facial recognition technology included ethnicity as an attribute, claiming that they never intended their technology for this matter and will work to eliminate any ability of its misuse.

Huawei is a Chinese telecommunications equipment company that many people already viewed as controversial. However, they responded with a similar message as Alibaba, outlining that their company opposes any discriminatory behaviour and that their software is neither intended for nor being used for this practice. Representatives reiterated their company’s purpose, saying, “We provide general-purpose connectivity products based on recognized industry standards, and we comply with ethics and governance systems around emerging technology.” However, one of Huawei’s European communication managers formally resigned last week, following concerns over Huawei’s alleged involvement in the surveillance of Muslim Uyghurs. His decision comes just a week after French football star Antoine Griezmann ended his sponsorship deal with Huawei, having raised his own “strong suspicions” that the company was involved in developing an alert system to monitor Uyghur people.

The new racial discrimination claims came in a week of recent allegations of forced labour and tainted cotton in China’s west. The BBC suggests that over half a million minority workers a year are being coerced into labour. The Chinese government has long denied any claims about the mistreatment of minority groups and forced labour, despite the extensive network of detention camps currently housing hundreds of individuals, many of whom work in unregulated textile factories. China claims that these camps are “vocational training schools” and that the textile factory work is entirely voluntary. These claims are rather unconvincing, as the United Kingdom is allegedly investigating its cotton sources to ensure that no material purchased can be connected to forced labour in any way. The United States also recently banned cotton imports from another Chinese corporation, believing that they are the product of detained Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.

The Chinese government has allegedly imprisoned over a million people in the north-western region of Xinjiang, the majority of whom are Uyghur: a Turkic-speaking ethnic group. Human rights organizations, non-profits, United Nations officials, and many foreign governments have repeatedly condemned the Chinese government’s actions and urged an end to this atrocity. However, Chinese officials are steadfast in their stance that they have not and do not plan to infringe on Uyghur people’s human rights.

This situation cannot continue. The news coverage on Alibaba and Huawei would not be alarming if not for fear of what may be happening beyond closed doors. It is not enough to condemn these companies for their creation of this technology; what is required is understanding how this technology is being used and by whom. Similarly, while decisions to boycott “tainted” cotton offer economic consequences, it will not stop forced labour in China. It is time to move beyond mere condemnation – to take real action.

Brynne Thomas