The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What a lobbyist’s remarks behind closed doors tell you about Chinese money in Washington

Hikvision headquarters in Hangzhou, in eastern China's Zhejiang province, on May 22. (Str/Afp Via Getty Images)
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Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a freelance journalist who covers China from Washington.

In the northwestern region of Xinjiang, the Chinese Communist Party has imprisoned more than 1 million Muslim ethnic minorities in mass internment camps and built up an all-encompassing surveillance state. Few of the country’s private companies are more deeply enmeshed in the continuing crackdown than Hikvision, one of the main suppliers of video surveillance equipment to the Chinese security services.

It was this involvement that recently earned the company, the world’s largest purveyor of surveillance equipment, a dubious distinction: Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Commerce placed Hikvision on its so-called entities list, meaning that U.S. businesses were no longer permitted to sell vital components to the Chinese company.

Fortunately for Hikvision, though, influence in Washington is for sale. They had a powerful ally on speed dial — former U.S. senator from Louisiana David Vitter, a Republican who now is a registered representative for Hikvision USA as part of his work at Mercury Public Affairs, a political strategy and consulting firm.

On Oct. 8, the day before the entity list was to take effect, Hikvision Vice President for Public Affairs Jeffrey He led a company-wide conference call from his office in Brussels. On the call, Vitter referred to U.S. restrictions on Hikvision as “assaults” and slammed Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who co-chairs the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, as having an “anti-China and anti-Hikvision agenda,” according to an unpublished recording of the internal company call obtained by IPVM, a trade publication covering the surveillance industry, which obtained the recording from an anonymous source.

The recording provides a rare glimpse into what former U.S. elected officials say behind closed doors when they choose to lobby for foreign entities after leaving office. Vitter’s comments reveal a stark about-face from some of the positions he championed while in office.

“From the beginning, all of our collective goal in this very negative, anti-China trade war environment has really been to make sure Hikvision survived in the United States,” Vitter said in the conference call.

Vitter referred to restrictions on Hikvision sales mandated under the National Defense Authorization Act as “assaults” and optimistically described the private meetings he’d had over the last few months with contacts in the Department of Commerce and on the Hill as he pressed the Chinese company’s case.

Two people who spoke on the call have confirmed the authenticity of the recording. In a phone call, He at first denied knowledge of the conference call, then admitted that the recording was authentic after hearing a portion of his own remarks played back to him.

Beginning in 2016, Hikvision, which is owned in part by the Chinese government, provided facial recognition technology to local governments in Xinjiang. In 2016 and 2017, Hikvision won more than $260 million in contracts with Xinjiang police departments, including a contract to put facial recognition cameras in nearly 1,000 mosques in the region.

But a backlash has been building in Washington against Hikvision’s involvement in what is now widely recognized as one of the largest repressive campaigns against religious minorities since World War II. Human rights organizations and religious freedom advocates have pressured the U.S. government to take a stand. By adding Hikvision and 27 other Chinese commercial and governmental organizations to the entities list, the U.S. government adapted a tool typically used to punish support for terrorism to target groups that are complicit in human rights violations.

A Hikvision spokesperson said that the company “respects human rights” and “strongly opposes [the] decision by the U.S. Government and it will hamper efforts by global companies to improve human rights around the world.”

In the conference call, Vitter said that he aimed to stave off further efforts to sanction the company and to ultimately get any punitive measures rescinded. He also criticized Rubio, who recently sponsored the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act and has urged the Trump administration to place export controls on Hikvision and other Chinese video surveillance companies, saying Rubio’s position was “contrary to everything we’re trying to defend.”

Even by cynical Washington standards, Vitter’s decision to use the contacts he developed while serving in Congress to help a company like Hikvision is particularly shocking. In 2015, Vitter co-sponsored a measure that would have made trade relations with foreign countries dependent on those countries’ religious freedom record. As amendment co-sponsor and fellow Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy said at the time: “If a country is persecuting their citizens for their religious beliefs, U.S. relations with that country should be questioned.” Vitter’s attempts to get Hikvision off the entity list run directly counter to this goal.

Vitter offers a different interpretation of his lobbying efforts. “I’m proud of my work with Hikvision because it’s based on very concrete, meaningful changes to business practices and corporate governance in support of human rights, following Ambassador Prosper’s recommendations,” he wrote in an emailed statement. He was referring to Pierre-Richard Prosper, a former U.S. diplomat hired by Hikvision to do an internal investigation into the company’s human rights compliance.

Hikvision has paid Mercury Affairs up to $125,000 per month for its services. Vitter’s compensation at Mercury is not disclosed in the Foreign Agents Registration Act database under the Department of Justice. (His overall compensation at Mercury is not subject to disclosure under the law.)

Many in Washington now seem to view taking foreign money, including funds from wealthy authoritarian governments including Saudi Arabia and China, as largely acceptable, and certainly as inevitable.

It should be neither. No respectable lawmaker would have represented the Soviet Union or assisted its mass detention of political prisoners. When it comes to money from foreign governments of ill repute, Washington needs to rediscover its moral compass.

Read more:

Jonathan Schanzer: Why the United States should sanction the mastermind of China’s crackdown on the Uighurs

Elizabeth M. Lynch: China’s attacks on Uighur women are crimes against humanity

The Post’s View: China’s repressive reach is growing

The Post’s View: Finally, some consequences for China’s concentration camps

Josh Rogin: China is using the Washington swamp against us