Trump’s Latest Salvo Against China Targets AI Firms

The Trump administration Monday banned six Chinese companies that work on artificial intelligence from doing business with US firms, accusing the companies of helping to violate the human rights of Muslims in China’s northwestern province of Xinjiang.

Four of the companies, SenseTime, Megvii, iFLYTEK, and Yitu, make software for facial recognition and voice transcription that’s reportedly been used in a campaign of repression and control in Xinjiang that has drawn international condemnation. The other companies, Hikvision and Dahua Technology, make surveillance equipment such as cameras that incorporates AI.

Besides drawing attention to an important issue, the ban is also the latest effort by the US to curb China’s progress in an increasingly important technology. “This is part of the broader tech cold war,” says Rebecca Fannin, a technology consultant and author of Tech Titans of China, a book that charts China’s recent progress in technology and innovation.

The rise of China’s tech industry has coincided, in recent years, with a revolution in AI. Advances in machine learning have transformed areas such as image and voice recognition, and the country’s big tech companies—Alibaba, Baidu, Huawei, and Tencent—have embraced the research and use of AI. A string of AI startups, including the four named at the top, have also ridden this wave to commercial riches by providing software for voice assistants, smart cities, autonomous vehicles, and more.

Fannin says the potential for AI to drive economic growth, and the way Chinese companies like Huawei and TikTok are growing overseas, present a challenge to American tech dominance. “These are troubling issues for the US,” she says.

Robert Ross, a professor who studies Chinese foriegn policy at Boston University, is more blunt. “I would say the president is using the situation with the Uighurs as a pretext,” he says. “It seems to be something of an effort to restrain China from developing AI technology, and from benefiting from US technology while it does that.”

The ban, announced after US markets closed Monday, prohibits the Chinese firms from doing business with US companies without a government-granted license.

The move marks a shift in Trump’s trade battle with China, which has until now targeted tech companies over espionage and security rather than human rights. Huawei has been the main target of US restrictions, with its 5G technology cited as a particular security worry.

The new restrictions also appeared timed to provide leverage in ongoing trade negotiations. China’s vice premier, Liu He, will arrive in Washington, DC, this week for the latest round of talks.

In total, 28 entities were added to the US Department of Commerce list. They include Xiamen Meiya Pico, which provides digital forensics tools, including ones for searching laptops and smartphones; and Yixin Science and Technology, which makes micro and nano fabrication gear, along with equipping regional government bureaus, a police college, and a construction company.

“Specifically, these entities have been implicated in human rights violations and abuses in the implementation of China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, and high-technology surveillance against Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups [in Xinjiang],” the Commerce Department said in its notice.

But the Trump administration’s motives appear to be double-edged. For one thing, the White House has not offered a consistent message on the situation in Xinjiang or on human rights in general. In July, more than 20 countries pressured China through the UN Human Rights Council to stop detentions in Xinjiang. But the US was not involved, having withdrawn from the forum a year earlier. In addition, the White House has so far shown little interest in regulating facial regulation technology offered by US companies.