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.

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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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