Republican lawmakers question sales of US products used in Chinese surveillance

Washington Examiner, 16 May 2018

By Joe Williams – Two Republican lawmakers are prodding the Commerce Department for details on the sale of U.S. products used in China’s mass surveillance of its citizens.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., wrote to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on May 9 to inquire whether the Bureau of Industry and Security is tracking the sale of such equipment and questioned whether the agency is seeking to impose any new export controls on the products.

“The actions of Chinese police and security agencies particularly in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region — XUAR — and elsewhere are deeply problematic,” the lawmakers wrote. “The ongoing abuses in the XUAR are a clear example of how the government is using technology, including U.S.-made, to systematically crack down on its people.”

Rubio and Smith specifically call out Massachusetts-based Thermo Fisher Scientific on DNA sequencers used by the Chinese Ministry of Public Security. The Human Rights Watch, which the lawmakers cite in the letter, said in a December report that Chinese authorities in Xinjiang were “collecting DNA samples, fingerprints, iris scans, and blood types of all residents in the region between the age of 12 and 65.” The group identified Thermo Fisher as a supplier to the Xinjiang police.

A spokesperson for the company did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Wall Street Journal reported that Chinese companies regularly trade with U.S. companies for key materials needed to build state surveillance equipment.

Rubio and Smith — who are the chair and co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China, respectively — are seeking answers on how Thermo Fisher is able to sell its products to the Chinese government and whether other product licenses have been sought for the same activity. The lawmakers also questioned whether there is any discussion on restricting access to such technology.

“U.S. companies should not be assisting the Chinese government’s repression or the detention of the families of U.S. government employees,” they wrote.

The letter follows a separate crackdown from the Commerce Department’s security division on Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE Corp. In April, the department issued a ban preventing any U.S. company from selling parts or equipment to ZTE for seven years. The firm is working to overturn the denial order, but in the meantime shuttered all its U.S. operations.

President Trump earlier weighed in on the dispute and said he had ordered Ross to get ZTE back into business.

Reported by Joe Williams for the Washington Examiner