The Current

Huawei refutes reports it helps China with surveillance, detention of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang

Huawei Canada's Alykhan Velshi told The Current that Huawei was not involved in operating technology that helped with the surveillance and detention of Muslims in China's Xinjiang province, saying, 'we sell technology all around the world, but we don't operate it.'

'We sell technology all around the world, but we don't operate it': Huawei Canada's Alykhan Velshi

Uighur security personnel patrol near the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar in western China's Xinjiang region, Nov. 4, 2017. (Ng Han Guan/Associated Press)
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An executive for Huawei Canada denied reports that the company is working with the Chinese government on surveillance technology in Xinjiang province, where as many as 1.8 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are reported to have been detained over the last three years.

"We sell technology all around the world, but we don't operate it. We don't know how our customers choose to operate it," said Alykhan Velshi, Huawei Canada's vice-president of corporate affairs.

Velshi spoke to The Current's Matt Galloway ahead of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou's extradition hearing in Vancouver, which started Monday.

Alykhan Velshi at the Huawei Canada office in Markham, Ont., just north of Toronto. (Julie Crysler/CBC)

Velshi noted he was concerned by reports of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and maintained that the company couldn't be involved in "sensitive military projects in China."

"Huawei is excluded from bidding for them because it's not a state-owned company," he said.

His statements contradict recent reports by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), which allege Huawei has provided technical support, training police and other security-related services for the Xinjiang government.

"Huawei's work in Xinjiang is extensive and includes working directly with the Chinese Government's public security bureaus in the region," the ASPI wrote in a report last November.

Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou leaves her house to attend a hearing at B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver on Jan. 20, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a senior fellow at the University of Alberta's China Institute, took issue with Velshi's claim that Huawei isn't state-owned.

"It's one per cent-owned by Meng Wanzhou's father, Ren Zhengfei, and the other 99 per cent ... is owned by a trade union committee, which is managed by and accountable to Communist Party officials," she told The Current.

"And so, like other trade unions in China, it's state-controlled. ... The ownership doesn't matter so much as the control." 

Here is part of Velshi's conversation with Galloway.

Alykhan Velshi, an executive for Huawei Canada, denied reports that the company is working with the Chinese government on surveillance technology in the country’s Xinjiang province, where as many as 1.8 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are reported to have been detained over the last three years. 4:42

One of the things that Huawei [is alleged to be] doing recently is working with the Chinese state in helping to build surveillance infrastructure in Xinjiang, where Uighurs and part of the Muslim minority there ... a million-plus people are in what people have described as concentration camps and internment camps and re-education camps.

Why should a company that has that on its track record be doing any work in this country?

So first of all, just to be clear, my expertise and my line of sight is primarily into Canada. But when I read those stories in the press, you know, I asked the same questions that Canadians asked. 

I asked, you know, are the reports true? What are we doing? First of all, the company has at the global level denied the report.

A building officially called a 'vocational skills education centre,' but widely reported to be a detention camp, is seen on Sept. 7, 2018 in Hotan in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Specifically, the parts that we've denied is that we operate any sort of smart city technology. And that makes a lot of sense to me as a Canadian, because we don't operate any of the technology we sell. 

We sell it to customers who operate it themselves. And so that aspect of the reporting is false.

But the way it was sort of explained to me is that [for] sensitive military projects in China, Huawei is excluded from bidding for them because it's not a state-owned company. 

There's been a lot of reporting in the press from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and others. You don't believe that Huawei is involved in the infrastructure in what people have called concentration camps in the surveillance cities in China that have imprisoned a million plus Uighurs?

No. The reporting that Huawei is operating smart city technologies in Xinjiang is false, because we don't operate smart city technologies anywhere in the world. We sell technology to customers.

What about surveillance technology?

In the case of that province, again, the answer that I've received is we will sell to integrators and how they bundle that technology is fundamentally up to them. 

We sell cell phones, we sell technology all around the world, but we don't operate it. We don't know how our customers choose to operate it.

You're suggesting that you had no idea, [i.e.], "We sold surveillance technology. It turns out they're doing surveillance on on a Muslim community. But we didn't know that our technology was going to be used to do that surveillance."

You expect people to believe that?

The analogy that our founder, Mr. Ren, gave ... was that if you think about us as selling trucks, we'll sell the trucks. But what someone who buys the truck decides to put in the trucks, we don't have line of sight into that. 

We simply don't know, and we don't have control over it once the gear leaves our premises, if you will.

Huawei Founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei gestures as he attends a session of the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting on January 22, 2015 in Davos. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

There are people who say that your company, or the company that you work for, is profiting from human rights abuses.

Why would this country want to get as deeply involved as could be possible with a company that is doing that?

Look, I think that any company that is operating globally, whether it's Huawei, whether it's SNC Lavalin, whether it's Bombardier, is selling to countries which have different value systems than our own. 

As a Canadian, I would say that they're probably having to sell to countries that have less good value systems than I'm personally comfortable with as a Canadian.

Leaked Chinese government documents reveal the prison-like detention and indoctrination taking place at camps in China’s Xinjiang region, where ethnic minority Muslims — known as Uighurs — are being held. The documents were obtained, verified and translated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in collaboration with CBC News.  4:13

But fundamentally, we can't stop the pace of globalization by walling ourselves off to the rest of the world.

We have to be prepared to accept that globalization means dealing with people who are different than ourselves.

This might be unfair, but personally, does it give you pause? That story, the fact that the company that you work for may or may not be somehow involved in this?

Certainly what's happening in Xinjiang causes me a great deal of concern, as it should cause everyone who is concerned about human rights abroad. But Huawei selling to customers who may sell to customers who may do something? 

That, to me, is a different issue entirely.


Written by Allie Jaynes. Produced by Julie Crysler.

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