British Columbia

Vancouver Uyghur group slams UBC event organizers for inviting Huawei executive

An online conference promoting Canada-China relations is under attack for inviting a representative of the Chinese tech giant Huawei, which has reportedly tested surveillance technologies used to repress the Uyghur ethnic minority in China.

The tech giant reportedly tested artificial intelligence used in monitoring the ethnic minority in China

Protesters gather outside Parliament buildings in Ottawa in February to protest human rights violations by the Chinese government. The Vancouver Uyghur Association is urging a student association at the University of British Columbia to cancel its online China Forum event scheduled for this weekend. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

An online conference promoting Canada-China relations is under attack for inviting a representative of the Chinese tech giant Huawei, which has reportedly tested surveillance technologies used to repress the Uyghur ethnic minority in China.

Huawei Canada's chief security officer Olivera Zatezalo is one of the 20 corporate leaders and academics speaking at this weekend's virtual UBC China Forum event organized by a student group at the University of British Columbia. 

In December, the Washington Post reported that Huawei worked with Chinese tech startup Megvii in 2018 to test a facial recognition camera system that can scan faces in a crowd, estimate people's ethnicities and trigger a "Uyghur alarm" to the Chinese police when detecting a member of the Muslim ethnic group.

The forum is set to be held from March 19 to 22 and is being presented by BizChina Club, a student group at UBC's Sauder School of Business.

"We strive to find the potential bright spots for cooperation by providing a platform for constructive and nonpartisan discussion, and highlighting the important people-to-people connections between Canada and China," says China Forum's website.

This message doesn't sit well with Shalina Nurly, the youth leader of the Vancouver Uyghur Association. On Wednesday evening, she sent a letter with more than 200 signatures to the BizChina Club calling for cancellation of the entire event.

The 20-year-old student at Simon Fraser University says it's absurd to continue emphasizing ties to a country that Canada has condemned for genocide and to engage companies suspected of being complicit in human rights violations.

"The student association thinks that working with them [the Chinese government and companies] is the way that we're going to solve everything … but that's not the case," Nurly said. "We need to be thoughtful of who the oppressed are and we need to listen to their voices."

The four-day event is scheduled to happen over the weekend when Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor are to be tried in China for espionage.

On Feb. 22, a majority of MPs voted in favour of a Conservative motion that says the Chinese government's monitoring, detention and torture of Uyghurs in Xinjiang province meets the definition of genocide set out by the United Nations' 1948 genocide convention.

Shalina Nurly, youth leader of Vancouver Uyghur Association, says it's absurd to continue emphasizing Canada's ties with China. (Rhianna Schmunk/CBC)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was absent from the vote with most of his cabinet members, sent a letter to the BizChina Club in early February welcoming attendees of the UBC China Forum.

In November 2019, two speakers of the UBC China Forum event held at Vancouver Convention Centre decided not to participate, the day after CBC reported that one of them had worked for SenseTime, a Chinese tech company blacklisted in the United States because of its facial recognition technology being used by Beijing to suppress the Uyghur minority.

Nurly says that outcome encouraged her to think big and ask for the whole event this year to be called off.

"I don't think it is something that's impossible," she said. "It's an online event. It's not like they rented out big halls."

Earlier this week, the BizChina Club responded to Nurly on Instagram, saying it doesn't support any kind of human rights violations and speakers at the forum don't represent views of the club.

Nurly said she isn't impressed, and she wants the club to stay away from controversial corporations and listen to people who need to be heard.

"We have our [Uyghur] voices and the Hong Kong voices and the Tibetan voices … that are being oppressed by the Chinese government. Our voices matter and our voices should be the one that's being listened to," she said.

In a written statement, UBC said the university was proud of the initiative and work of all its students engaging in global issues and ideas.

CBC News has also requested comment from BizChina Club and Huawei. 

With files from Michelle Ghoussoub, Peter Zimonjic and Ryan Patrick Jones

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