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Editorial : A tech war awaits HK

【明報專訊】WHILE the Sino-US trade negotiations are about to resume, Washington has made a new move. Using human-rights related problems arising in Xinjiang as a pretext, it has added to its trade blacklist eight Chinese technology companies including SenseTime, a Hong Kong enterprise specialising in facial recognition. It is difficult for Hong Kong to stay out of an increasingly bitter struggle between the two nations. On the one hand, Washington's decision highlights its strategic aim of undermining China's AI development. On the other, it signals that it is not easy for Hong Kong, being embroiled in a Sino-US war over technology, to be in favour with both.

Established by CUHK Faculty of Engineering professor Tang Xiao'ou and headquartered at Hong Kong Science Park, SenseTime has attained considerable achievements in facial recognition technology. The mainland authorities prize its success and think highly of it. A big tree attracts the woodman's axe. The mainland's anti-terror surveillance measures in Xinjiang have drawn criticisms. Because of its dealings on the mainland, SenseTime is caught up in the vortex of trade war. Two years ago, SenseTime and Leon, a supplier of data analysis and surveillance technology in Xinjiang, together founded Tangli Technology, a "smart policing" joint venture. To cut all ties with it, SenseTime announced early this year that it would sell off its stake in Tangli.

SenseTime claims that it no longer has dealings in Xinjiang. But apparently Washington would not just let it off. This week, the US Commerce Department has added eight Chinese technology companies, including SenseTime and Hikvision, to its "entity list", citing their involvement in "human rights violations and abuses in the implementation of China's campaign" against Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang as the reason. That bans American enterprises from doing business or cooperating with any of them. SenseTime has strongly opposed the move and demanded fair and impartial treatment.

Talks between Chinese and American trade representatives are to resume in Washington this week. The US stresses that the decision to blacklist the companies has nothing to do with the trade war. But even the Western media are concerned that US President Donald Trump, who seldom makes an issue of human rights abuses, might intend to play the human rights card to pressure China. Of course, judging from the US's moves to force out Huawei, SenseTime and other companies, it not only aims at getting more bargaining chips, but also is determined to undermine China's development of high technology. That is why US Senator Marco Rubio, who advocates tough measures against China, has claimed that Chinese technology companies like SenseTime "pose national security dangers to the United States".

In the West, there are quite a few controversies over the use of facial recognition. Some are concerned about the built-in racial bias of US and European facial recognition technologies. One after another, UK and US law enforcement agencies have adopted the technology. That could exacerbate racial discrimination. Next month France will become the first EU state to identify people using facial recognition technology. That has caused suspicions of privacy infringements. Recently India has shown interest in drawing on China's experience and has proposed building a massive facial recognition system for assisting in law enforcement and anti-terror action. Though it is called the largest democracy, there is still uncertainty and anxiety about the potential abuse of surveillance technologies.

Not only is SenseTime a flagship of Hong Kong Science Park, but it is also a rare unicorn in the city. Washington's decision to ban SenseTime is not beneficial to the company or the development of innovation and technology in Hong Kong. Nor does it spell the end of the world. First, the company's core business has to do with software, meaning that it is far less reliant on US suppliers than companies like Huawei. Second, it operates mainly on the mainland and Southeast Asia, with its eyes fixed on future opportunities across Belt and Road countries. So the US's ban will only have a limited impact on it. What merits more attention is whether it will adversely affect the company's future fundraising or its partnerships with prestigious academic institutions like MIT.

明報社評2019.10.09:港產「獨角獸」遭美封殺 創科之路須迎難而上

中美貿易談判在即,華府又有新動作,以新疆人權問題為藉口,將8間中國科技企業列入貿易黑名單,專攻人臉辨識技術的港產科企「商湯科技」榜上有名。中美角力愈演愈烈,香港難以置身事外,華府今次決定,一方面突顯美方打擊中國人工智能發展的戰略目標,同時亦反映香港捲入中美科技戰爭之中,不易左右逢源。

商湯科技由中大工程學院教授湯曉鷗創立,總部位於香港科技園,其人臉辨識技術相當了得。商湯的成功,贏得內地青睞和重視,然而樹大招風,內地新疆反恐監控措施惹來非議,在內地有生意合作關係的商湯,也捲入漩渦之中。兩年前,商湯與新疆數據分析和監控技術的供應商立昂,成立「智能警務」合資企業湯立科技。為了劃清界線,今年初商湯宣布出售湯立科技股權。

商湯表示在新疆再無任何業務,然而華府顯然無意就此放過商湯。本周,美國商務部以「涉嫌協助中國政府侵犯新疆維吾爾穆斯林人權」為由,把商湯科技、海康威視等8間中國科技公司列入「實體清單」,禁止美國企業與它們有生意往來和合作。商湯強烈反對,要求公平公正對待。

中美貿易代表預定本周在華盛頓恢復談判。雖然美方強調,今次黑名單決定與貿易戰無關,然而就連西方媒體也關注,過去甚少拿人權問題做文章的美國總統特朗普,今次是否有意打「人權牌」向華施壓。當然,由封殺華為到今次向商湯等出手,華府顯然不止為了增加貿易談判籌碼,而是決心要打擊中國高科技發展。主張強硬對華的美國參議員魯比奧便聲言,商湯科技等中國科企「對美國國家安全構成威脅」。

在西方,關於人臉辨識應用的爭議亦不少,有人關注歐美人臉辨識技術隱含種族偏見,英美等國執法機構相繼引入,可能加劇種族歧視問題;下月法國成為歐盟首個透過人臉辨識技術確認民眾身分的國家,亦惹來侵犯私隱質疑。印度最近也有意借鑑中國經驗,提出建立大型人臉辨識系統,支援執法和反恐。雖然印度號稱全球最大民主國家,惟濫用監控技術問題同樣惹來疑慮。

商湯是香港科技園的旗艦,亦是香港少有的初創「獨角獸」。華府今次封殺決定,對商湯和香港創科發展,談不上是好事,亦非世界末日。商湯業務核心在軟件,對美企供應依賴遠較華為等少,加上生意主要集中在內地和東南亞,放眼一帶一路國家,美方封殺影響有限,目前較要留意的,是會否影響未來公司集資,以及與麻省理工等著名學府的伙伴關係。

■Glossary

embroiled in sth : to be involved in a difficult situation

prize : to value sth highly

unicorn : a new company valued at more than a billion dollars, typically in the software or technology sector

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