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EU taps Chinese tech linked to Muslim internment camps

James Franey
October 26, 2020

In the fight against coronavirus, the EU is using thermal cameras produced by Chinese tech giant Hikvision. The firm has been linked to the oppression of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in China's Xinjiang province.

Surveillance camera
Image: Mark Schiefelbein/AP Photo/picture-alliance

Two EU institutions are using technology produced by China's Hikvision, a firm that has been accused of providing surveillance equipment to Muslim internment camps in the country's northwest Xinjiang province.

Hikvision describes itself as "the world's leading video surveillance products supplier."

The Chinese tech giant has its European base in the Netherlands and has not been subject to any EU sanctions or blacklist measures.

Officials at the European Parliament and the European Commission acquired the company's thermal imaging cameras as part of the fight against the spread of the new coronavirus.

The gadgets can detect a high temperature or fever, which is a common symptom of COVID-19.

Anyone with a temperature of more than 37.7°C (99.86°F) is denied entry.

Ministers, parliamentarians, senior diplomats, and staffers are asked to briefly stare into one of Hikvision's cameras as soon as they enter the buildings in question.

Many will have been unaware they will come face to face with a firm accused of contributing to human rights abuses in China.

Hikvision's thermal cameras are being used at the entrances of European ParliamentImage: James Franey/DW

Trump blacklisted Hikvision last year

US President Donald Trump's administration decided to blacklist the Chinese company in October last year.

Washington added Hikvision to what is known as the US Entity List, a register of companies believed to pose a threat to national security or US foreign policy interests.

The move bans American companies from doing business with the firm without the government's approval. 

In return, Hikvision is effectively barred from buying American products or software.

The Trump administration says the company has been "implicated 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."

Read more US blacklists 28 Chinese companies over Xinjiang 'rights abuses'

The US also accuses the company of being linked to the Chinese military, a charge the tech giant denies.

European Parliament, Commission turn to Hikvision

The allegations surrounding Hikvision's business dealings in Xinjiang are in the public domain.

Yet staff at the EU institutions acquired the company's thermographic cameras when they brought in new coronavirus safety measures to fight the pandemic. 

The cameras have been placed at entrances throughout the European Parliament.

A DW journalist also saw similar Hikvision equipment installed at the European Commission's main offices, the Berlaymont and Charlemagne buildings, in the heart of the Belgian capital's European quarter.

A Hikvision thermographic camera at the main entrance of the Berlaymont building, the European Commission's headquartersImage: privat

Two staffers, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the EU's executive arm will bring in more thermal screening hardware at other offices in the Belgian capital. The Commission has some 60 buildings in Brussels.

A European Commission spokesperson, however, told DW that Hikvision equipment will not be used for the rest of the buildings.

Hikvision has faced repeated accusations over its alleged links to brutal "re-education camps" in Xinjiang.

A leaked German Foreign Ministry report, obtained by DW in January of this year, said an estimated 1 million Uighurs in China are being detained without trial.

Ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and members of other Muslim minority groups are also being imprisoned, the report said.

In July this year, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the detention centers "concentration camps" — a term disputed by Beijing.

This building, photographed in September 2018, is part of a detention center in Xinjiang Image: Reuters/T. Peter

These allegations were put to Hikvision, in which the Chinese government holds a 40% controlling stake via the state-owned China Electronics Technology Group Corporation.

A Hikvision spokesperson, in an emailed statement to DW, said: "Hikvision takes all reports of human rights very seriously and recognizes our responsibility for protecting people. We have been engaging with governments globally to clarify misunderstandings about the company and address their concerns."

Hikvision, however, did not comment on DW's specific questions on the company's reported connection to the detention centers and other security contracts with authorities in Xinjiang.

A January 2020 report by the ethics council for the Norwegian government's pension fund said Hikvision signed five security and surveillance contracts in 2017 with the public authorities in Xinjiang worth more than €230 million ($273 million).

They included tenders for surveillance technology at internment camps, the report said.

It described another contract as providing "a network of around 35,000 cameras to monitor schools, streets and offices" and the "installation of facial recognition cameras at 967 mosques."

The ethics council's report recommended divesting from the company due to "an unacceptable risk that Hikvision, through its operations in Xinjiang, is contributing to serious human rights abuses."

Last month, Norges Bank, which manages the investments, said “the company is no longer in the fund's portfolio."

Hikvision has said in the past that it has no access to any data processed by its hardware and no information is sent to Beijing.

DW reported in February how technology is used to subject the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities to draconian methods of tracking and arrest.

Uighurs: Imprisoned for their faith and culture


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EU talks tough on China

EU officials' use of Hikvision technology seems to be at odds with the bloc's own policy goals, given that it has been a repeated critic of China's human rights record.

The European Parliament gave its annual human rights prize to Uighur activist Ilham Tohti in 2019, who has been jailed for life.

On Sunday, his daughter Jewher tweeted that she had not had any contact with him for three years.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told Beijing at an EU-China summit in June that "human rights and fundamental freedoms are non-negotiable."

European Council President Charles Michel, who chairs the regular meetings of EU leaders, has also been critical of Chinese repression. 

"We will not stop promoting respect for universal human rights, including those of minorities such as the Uighurs," the ex-Belgian PM said in a speech to the UN General Assembly last month.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel give an online press conference after the EU-China summit in June 2020Image: picture-alliance/dpa/European Council/D. Pignatelli

EU urged to cut Hikvision ties

German Green MEP Reinhard Bütikofer, who heads the European Parliament's China delegation, said that DW's revelations of the use of Hikvision technology were "extremely disturbing."

"It points to a shameful lack of due diligence in procurement," he told DW in a telephone interview. "Hikvision is a tech company that is deeply complicit in the terrible oppression of the Uighur people in Xinjiang which borders on genocide."

Bütikofer said EU officials should "immediately create transparency and draw the adequate consequences: i.e. sever any direct or indirect business relationship with Hikvision."

Charlie Weimers, a Swedish MEP from the European Conservatives and Reformists group, said: "The EU should have no dealings whatsoever with a Chinese firm that is alleged to be involved in some of the most abhorrent human rights abuses in the world."

"Nobel Prize winners should adhere to a higher standard," he added.

In 2012, the EU won the Nobel Peace Prize for its contribution to "peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights."

Question marks over EU procurement 

DW has been unable to locate any public tenders for the equipment on the EU's procurement websites.

Parliamentary insiders, who work on the European Parliament's budget committee, also say there is no trace of them in any public EU records.

Internal rules say that contracts can be kept secret if they are linked to "special security measures."

Image: privat

The European Parliament and the European Commission were asked to provide the documents linked to the hardware's acquisition. 

Officials at both institutions did not provide them by the time of publication.

Given that neither Hikvision, nor its European subsidiaries, have been blacklisted by the EU, there is no suggestion of any illegality.

"The equipment is neither connected to Parliament's IT network, nor registers any data," said a European Parliament spokesperson in a written response to DW.  

The spokesperson declined to confirm if Hikvision technology was being used in Brussels.

When DW provided photos of the cameras, she said: "We cannot comment further on anything related to security."

A spokesperson for the European Commission, in a written statement to DW, has since said the cameras were "purchased under an existing framework contract."

This article has been updated to include the European Commission's response to DW's exclusive report. The statement was received after the article had been published.

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