The state-run Hikvision is the world’s largest manufacturer of video surveillance equipment — and one of the firms most complicit in the imprisonment of Muslims in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, where roughly a million Muslims languish in “educational transformation centers,” while millions more on the outside endure the conditions of a techno-dystopian prison. In Xinjiang, the Chinese are combining face recognition technology and artificial intelligence to keep an entire population under surveillance. “Cameras point at imams leading prayers inside mosques, diners eating in restaurants and customers haggling with shopkeepers,” the AFP journalist Ben Dooley wrote.
And many of those cameras come from Hikvision: In 2017, the firm won at least five security-related contracts, worth roughly $270 million, according to Dooley’s reporting. Hikvision has reportedly provided tens of thousands of cameras throughout Xinjiang, including in more than 900 mosques, and six “video monitoring systems” for the camps themselves. (Representatives from Hikvision, and from its U.S. arm, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
As the extent of the Chinese crackdown — which the government in Beijing explains away as a campaign against terrorism — becomes appalling clear around the world, you’d think that the Western companies with ties to implicated Chinese firms would reassess their involvement. So how do the Westerners justify working with a company that makes surveillance cameras for concentration camps? They don’t.
Amazon declined to comment for this story. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Post.) So did Sidley Austin, “respectfully.” Intel provided a brief statement about how their products “are used by our customers worldwide, including in China,” but declined to comment further. Mercury Public Affairs, which Paul Manafort paid to bolster the image of the Ukrainian government, and the lobbyists at Glover Park Group both work for Hikvision — and neither responded to multiple requests for comment. Susan Lagana, Burson-Marsteller’s managing director for public affairs and crises, signed the contract with Hikvision, and she passed me to a spokeswoman.
Was Burson-Marsteller aware of Hikvision’s cameras in concentration camps? I asked. And if they weren’t before, how do they feel now that they know the truth? “Burson-Marsteller has been engaged by Hikvision USA to support its communications objectives in the United States,” the spokeswoman responded by email. And what about the camps, I asked again. “We have nothing further,” she said.
In some ways, this is back to the basics for Burson-Marsteller, a PR giant and part of the WPP Group family of companies. B-M partnered with the Nigerian government to play down its genocide during the 1967-1970 Biafran war, the Argentine junta as it notoriously “disappeared” thousands of people, and the Indonesian government to cover up its slaughter of civilians in East Timor. “To me, it’s more a business decision than an ethical decision,” the firm’s co-founder Harold Burson wrote in a 2017 book, explaining how he decided to work with controversial clients.
For now, working with Hikvision is a smart business decision. The $25,000 a month the company receives, according to a filing the company provided to the Department of Justice, include hourly billing rates that range from $650 an hour for a senior executive, to an astounding $85 an hour for interns.
None of these American companies is breaking the law by helping a Chinese company commit human rights abuses. But that could soon change. On Aug. 29, 17 members of Congress from both parties sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, urging them to sanction seven Chinese officials and two firms that make surveillance equipment — Hikvision and its competitor Dahua — over the situation in Xinjiang. In May, the House passed a bill to ban the U.S. government from buying surveillance cameras from Hikvision and several other Chinese firms, because of national security concerns. If the State Department sanctions Hikvision, that could complicate the work of Burson-Marsteller — and make the company’s unethical decisions harder to justify.
In June 1937, IBM founder Thomas Watson Sr. accepted a medal from Adolf Hitler for foreigners “who made themselves deserving of the German Reich.” The Nazis used IBM machines to help count Jews — and, until the start of World War II, American technicians serviced the machines for the Nazis. China is not Nazi Germany, and the Muslims in northwest China are not being exterminated: These are prison camps, not death camps. But IBM could have left Germany before 1940, when its German subsidiary forced it out. Perhaps IBM deserved the benefit of the doubt in 1933, when the Nazis first oversaw a nationwide boycott of Jewish businesses. It did not in 1937.
In explaining how he chose cases, Burson said he “followed the practice of representing no one who would make existing clients or staff members uncomfortable.” Dear Susan Lagana and all Burson-Marsteller employees: Get uncomfortable. The situation in Xinjiang could rapidly improve. Or it could descend into genocide. Don’t join the ranks of Xi Jinping’s willing executioners.
Bonnie Cao contributed research.