By Tom Tugendhat

The debate about Huawei’s involvement in our key 5G infrastructure has so far focused on the national security risks. These are considerable – both the US and Australia have registered serious concerns, with the US threatening to stop sharing security with the UK if our deal goes ahead.

But Huawei’s human rights record has been notably absent from discussion. It is vital that we do our human rights due diligence on companies bidding for massive public contracts, and there is precious little evidence that this critical question regarding Huawei is even on the agenda.

Huawei at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, 2015. Photo: Kārlis Dambrāns/Flickr.

Thanks to some superb investigative reporting, the world is slowly waking up to the mass detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China. But Huawei’s role in the surveillance state has barely received a single column inch.

This matters, because if we’re not careful, we may find ourselves funnelling public money into the pockets of a company accused of propping up the most egregious human rights abuses in the contemporary world.

Here’s what we know. In November, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) published a major report which shows that Huawei actively provides surveillance technology to the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau, facilitating the construction of the world’s most invasive surveillance state.

Huawei’s work in the province is extensive. The report shows that the corporation has developed the Xinjiang public security cloud, which makes the total control and repression of Uighur Muslims possible; it has a partnership with the Xinjiang Broadcasting and Television Network to help the state propaganda organs to be as effective as possible; and in one recent press release, a Huawei Director said: ‘Together with the Public Security Bureau, Huawei will unlock a new era of smart policing and help build a safer, smarter society.’

Given what we know about Xinjiang, ‘smart policing’ is the worst kind of Orwellian double-speak. In November, BBC Panorama reported on explosive new secret documents which confirmed that in that region, China have been attempting to brainwash more than a million Muslims in prison camps. Adrian Zenz, a Xinjiang expert, said on the show: “The world should acknowledge this for what it is, the largest internment of an ethnic minority since the holocaust”.

These are incendiary accusations indeed. If they are even remotely true, this is not a company we should be dealing with.

The Panorama report was based on New York Times-published documents from the Chinese Communist Party which revealed the cold and calculated rationale behind the creation of concentration camps to house a million Uighur Muslims. President Xi Jinping reportedly urged party officials to show “absolutely no mercy” and use all the “organs of dictatorship” to fight against Muslims “infected” with the “virus of extremism”.

The so-called “extremists” being rounded-up are Muslims who grow long beards or pray outside state-owned mosques. The Chinese President said they must “undergo a period of painful, interventionary treatment”.

File photo posted by the Xinjiang Judicial Administration to its WeChat account. File photo: Xinjiang Judicial Administration.

A second leak, an ICIJ investigation dubbed the ‘China Cables’, confirmed the suspicions of rights activists that the “interventionary treatment” described includes mass surveillance, incarceration, and torture on an appalling scale.

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has described Xinjiang as a “sort of no-rights zone”; an in-depth report by Human Rights Watch shows that high-tech mass surveillance systems are used to monitor and control every aspect of life.

Far from condemning this, Huawei is accused of shamelessly facilitating this totalitarian system. And their provision of surveillance technology extends beyond Xinjiang. According to another ASPI report, Huawei has worked to develop the ‘public security’ apparatus in countries such as Ecuador, Pakistan, the Philippines, Venezuela, Bolivia, Zimbabwe, and Serbia.

Although some of their influence here may be beneficial, the export of surveillance technology to developing countries with authoritarian leaders is problematic and deserves greater scrutiny.

The UK, Germany, and other governments must seriously examine evidence of Huawei’s actions in facilitating the unconscionable repression of the Uyghurs before signing any contracts, or be complicit in funding groups that brutally violate rights.

ASPI conclude that “Huawei’s Xinjiang activities should be taken into consideration during debates about Huawei and 5G technologies.” Thankfully there is still time for the UK to do exactly that.

Tom Tugendhat is a UK Member of Parliament for Tonbridge and Malling. This article first appeared on Conservative Home.

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