British Columbia

Tech firm blacklisted in U.S. over facial-recognition allegations invited to Vancouver conference

Local advocacy groups consider protests due to SenseTime’s alleged violation of Uighurs’ rights in China.

Uighur group considers protest because China uses facial recognition from firm to track the ethnic minority

Protesters around the world have taken up the cause of Uighur people, a Muslim minority living in northwestern China, who say they are subject to a massive internment and re-education program. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)

A Vancouver conference promoting business links between Canada and China is under fire for inviting a company that's blacklisted in the United States for its work monitoring the Uighur ethnic group in China.

Jimmy Zhou, executive director of SenseTime, is one of the Chinese corporate leaders invited to speak at the China Forum to be held Nov. 16 and 17 and sponsored by BizChina Club from the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business.

SenseTime is an artificial intelligence startup based in Hong Kong that has worked with Chinese tech giant Huawei to launch a facial recognition program, according to the latter's website.

In early October, the U.S. Department of Commerce blacklisted SenseTime with other Chinese tech companies for alleged human rights violations against Uighurs in Xinjiang province. Facial recognition technologies from these firms have reportedly been used by the Chinese government to monitor the Muslim minority in the northwestern Chinese province.

Shalina Nurly, youth leader for the Vancouver Uighur Association, said the event at the Vancouver Convention Centre is a disappointment, and the group is considering mounting a protest.

"We have been let down by the UBC community," said Nurly in an email to CBC News.

"At a time where the world is re-experiencing the Nazi concentration camps [in Xinjiang], we as Canadians should be joining the U.S. as it takes a stand against Communist China for the basic fundamental rights of the Uighur and other Muslim minority groups."

UBC president Santa Ono delivered his endorsement of the conference in a promotional video. (UBC China Forum)

Promoted as 'great opportunity'

The event has been promoted by UBC president Santa Ono and George Chow, B.C. minister of state for trade, who describes the two-day conference in a promotional video as "a great opportunity to bridge Canadian and Chinese business and culture."

The conference has also received support from the Chinese consulate in Vancouver, according to a message on the Chinese instant messaging platform WeChat.

Nurly, a 19-year-old student at Simon Fraser University, also expressed concern about Lina Chen, the chief editor of Sina Weibo, appearing at the conference.

As China's major social media platform, Sina Weibo has censored topics that Beijing deems politically sensitive, including the animated TV series South Park and the June 4 anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

"What is peculiar about Lina Chen is that she is the deputy secretary of the Chinese Communist Party for her company. How that works is in China, every private company has such a committee in place for the party to get control of the private sector," said Nurly.

According to Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, 68 per cent of China's private companies had an internal communist presence by the end of 2016, and that continues to grow. 

Business with China carries 'high risks'

Mabel Tung, the president of the Vancouver Society in Support of Democratic Movement, which organizes the Tiananmen anniversary vigils and rallies in support of Hong Kong protesters, said Canadians should be vigilant about Chinese business ties.

"The recent case of Canada's two Michaels [Kovrig and Spavor], arbitrarily detained in China since December 2018 without formal charges … serves as a blunt reminder to us Canadians that doing business with communist China carries very high risks that are entirely unpredictable."

Shalina Nurly, youth leader of Vancouver Uighur Association, said she's upset by SenseTime and Sina Weibo executives being invited to the UBC China Forum conference. (Rhianna Schmunk/CBC)

BizChina Club's president, Michelle Lau, said she was "surprised to hear" about the concerns from local Uighurs, but added that her association "will certainly take these concerns into consideration moving forward."

A UBC spokesperson said the university is "proud of the initiative and work of all students who are engaging on global issues and ideas."

Both SenseTime and Sina Weibo have not responded to interview requests.

To listen to the full interview of Shalina Nurly with Stephen Quinn on The Early Edition, click below:

Vancouver Uighur Association's Shalina Nurly speaks with Stephen Quinn about the ethical questions surrounding the China Forum at the Vancouver Convention Centre. Then Stephen speaks with Montreal AI Ethics Institute's Renjie Butalid about a Chinese AI tech company also attending the forum. 15:28

About the Author

Winston Szeto is a CBC News associate producer in Vancouver. You can contact him at winston.szeto@cbc.ca and follow him on Twitter @winstonszeto.

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