Kiwi startup Rocos Global was barely up and running with its platform to make robots move when it caught the attention of China tech giant iFlytek.
The Auckland company had developed a cloud-based platform to operate fleets of autonomous robots: a third-party system for iFlytek and other robot manufacturers to control their robots from anywhere.
China’s president, Xi Jinping, had designated iFlytek one of his national champions to lead the country to international dominance in artificial intelligence (AI), and the NZ$20 billion company was scanning the globe for partnership opportunities.
It signed a multi-year research agreement with prestigious American university MIT in 2018 and a year later was ready to ink a deal with a little-known, two-year-old New Zealand company.
The signing ceremony took place in Auckland in August 2019, with Rocos chief executive David Inggs, iFlytek vice-president Dawei Duan, and Andrew Hamilton - , then-chief executive of The Icehouse, the majority stakeholder in Rocos - , attending.
Linking up with a company such as iFlytek and gaining a presence in China was not something Rocos co-founder Inggs had thought would happen so soon, because of the country’s unfamiliar laws and regulations, according to a blog post written for The Icehouse’s Eden Ventures investment arm.
But thanks to Eden Ventures, which links Chinese investors with Kiwi start-ups, a seriously big market was opening up to Rocos. The relationship was further cemented when Inggs attended a festival run by iFlytek in Hefei, China, which attracted around 17,000 developers, and picked up an innovation award.
Neither company revealed the finer details of their partnership, but iFlytek described it as ‘’all-round co-operation”, and said the Rocos platform would be integrated into iFlytek’s voice operating system iFLYOS.
Rocos would also have an opportunity to demonstrate its innovation on the world stage, by coordinating cleaning and delivery robots at the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, where iFlytek is an exclusive supplier.
Inggs has spoken enthusiastically in the past about the potential for autonomous robots, telling the New Zealand Tech podcast that new applications were coming out all the time.
He highlighted the use of hospital cleaning and delivery robots, and those used in security.
“Security robots are becoming more and more popular now, which is effectively just a security camera on wheels, and again you’ve got machine learning algorithms that can identify if people should or shouldn’t be in certain zones, so security is a fantastic application for robotics, which is taking off.”
Policing and prosecution are two big areas of growth for iFlytek, although its technology is integrated into almost every aspect of life in China: from business to education and health, smart cities and cars. The company, part-owned by the Chinese Government, boasts more than 800 million users of its technology and says it wants to use AI to build a better world.
But look closer at iFlytek and there’s evidence it has supported the state-sanctioned surveillance and oppression of millions of Uyghur people in the region of Xinjiang.
The details first emerged in 2017, when Human Rights Watch (HRW) presented research - based on reports and the Chinese government’s own documents - pointing to iFlytek’s collaboration with security agencies to collect voice samples from the minority Uyghur population. iFlytek had also touted its work in helping the Ministry of Public Security build a national voice print database.
And then in June 2019, HRW China director Sophie Richardson gave testimony to a US senate committee, further outlining the surveillance techniques in Xinjiang, including the use of iFlytek’s voice print technology.
“Our research is only a snapshot of an evolving system of mass surveillance. These systems are generating massive datasets – unprecedented in human history – of personal information, people’s behavior, relationships, and movements,” she said.
So by August 2019, was anyone at the Rocos Global signing ceremony asking questions about their new partner?
At least one of those in attendance was aware of concerns about iFlytek’s connections to human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The Icehouse had just months earlier signed its own deal with iFlytek and chief executive Andrew Hamilton was asked at the time about iFlytek’s role in the mass surveillance of Uyghurs.
Hamilton said he was unaware iFlytek’s voice recognition technology was involved, although he would “watch for any developments”.
But iFlytek was very much on Hamilton’s radar. He had visited the company offices during a nine-day visit to China in May 2019 and, on his return, spoke to at least 100 people from the venture capital industry.
Hamilton said Chinese companies craved reputation, which made Rocos the ‘’perfect partner’’ for iFlytek.
In his speech, Hamilton referred to questions that had been raised in the past about iFlytek and linked it to the Christchurch mosque shootings.
“I once told a New Zealand reporter who was embarrassed by HKUST iFLYTEK that if New Zealand also applied the advanced technology of HKUST iFLYTEK, perhaps the tragedy of more than two months ago would not have happened.”
The development came in October 2019, two months after Rocos signed its partnership agreement: the US Government put iFlytek on a trade blacklist because of its involvement in human rights abuses.
Rocos acknowledged the relationship in 2020, saying that its platform was not used for military or police purposes, ‘’now or in the future’’.
That same year, MIT terminated its collaboration with iFlytek after running it through an ‘’elevated risk’’ process for research deals with companies from China, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
However, nothing further was said publicly by The Icehouse or Rocos until Stuff Circuit began asking questions for its investigation, Deleted.
“It doesn't really take much time or energy to find out the incriminating evidence against IFlytek,’’ says Timothy Grose, an associate professor of China Studies who has written extensively about the Uyghur persecution. ‘’It literally took me one evening of searching the Chinese internet to find out just how far [iFlytek] spread itself in Xinjiang.”
Which prompts the question: when Hamilton said he would “watch for developments”, did he? What did he do when iFlytek appeared on that US trade blacklist?
Andy Hamilton did not want to talk to Stuff Circuit, saying that as he is no longer CEO it wasn’t appropriate. We’d contacted him on the day Auckland’s Covid alert level dropped.
“Hectic day and grateful for the small businesses in AKL being able to get back to Level 1!,” he told us by text. “I am off to share some love with them. All the best for your story.”
He did reply, though, when we asked specifically what he meant by his comments about iFlytek in relation to the Christchurch mosque shootings.
“My comment reflected that if the people who are tasked with keeping New Zealanders safe know of people’s actions which intended to harm, then that terrible tragedy could have been averted. Personally I want to see how technology can be used to help society in positive ways and that included protecting us in the interests of us all.”
That was the end of the conversation. “Turning the phone off now.”
We also wanted to ask iFlytek about its work and New Zealand partnerships but it didn’t reply to our emails. It has never responded to HRW’s questions either.
Right about now you might be thinking Rocos and Icehouse Ventures are perfectly entitled to partner with whomever they choose.
But there’s a common factor between all of them that escalates the issue: the government.
It has a shareholding in Rocos through the Aspire NZ Seed Fund, which invests $20 million a year in tech start-ups, and provides around $700,000 a year in funding to Icehouse Ventures through Callaghan Innovation.
The numbers might be small - the government stake in Rocos is 3.5 per cent - but that’s not the point, says Timothy Grose from the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana.
“I don't think you can separate any so-called positive relationships with a company that's doing very dangerous and destructive things,” says the associate professor of China Studies. “It's not about the quantity of the partnership, or the quantity of the shareholding, but that the shareholding exists at all.”
Responding to questions from Stuff Circuit, Aspire NZ Seed Fund said it was “going through its files on all of this”.
Callaghan said, “We were made aware of the relationship and that Icehouse has been working to understand the situation.”
Asked when it was made aware of the relationship, it did not respond.
But how have the government links been allowed to happen, when it says it’s taken a strong stance on the treatment of Uyghurs?
“I don’t think ignorance can be used as an excuse anymore,” says Grose, “ especially since journalists and scholars and activists have been raising awareness about this issue for nearly three years now.
“And so I think that if any foreign company, more especially any foreign government, wants to do business with a company in China, it needs to do its research before agreeing to any terms of a contract.”
It does seem apparent that government oversight is lacking, because while Deleted focuses on iFlytek, it’s not the only Chinese company named and shamed for its role in the persecution of Uyghurs doing business in New Zealand.
Hikvision is the world’s largest surveillance camera brand. Its cameras are in use all over the country, including councils and government agencies.
It also featured in HRW’s 2019 testimony to the US senate committee, in an explanation on the uses of mass surveillance.
“The Chinese police are researching ways to use such information to understand in a more fine-grained way how people lead their lives,’’ China director Sophie Richardson told the hearing.
“The goal is apparently to identify patterns of, and predict, the everyday life and resistance of its population, and, ultimately, to engineer and control reality.”
The greatest tool in the surveillance of Uyghur has been an app called the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (IJOP). Richardson’s team at Human Rights Watch reverse-engineered the app to help understand what information was being gathered, and how it was used.
“Our research into the app revealed that the authorities consider many ordinary and legal behavior, such as ‘not socialising with neighbours’, ‘often avoiding using the front door’, using WhatsApp, or simply being related to someone who has obtained a new phone number, as suspicious.
“The app then flags such people for interrogation; some of whom are then sent to Xinjiang’s political education camps where they are arbitrarily and indefinitely detained until authorities deemed them to have become sufficiently loyal to the Chinese Communist Party.”
The app was designed by state-owned defence conglomerate China Electronics Technology Group Corporation, she said. CETC has a number of subsidiary companies, including Hikvision, which has received a share of more than $1 billion in Chinese Government contracts to provide equipment to agencies in Xinjiang.
And in October 2019 Hikvision was added alongside iFlytek to the US Government’s trade blacklist, implicated in human rights violations against Uyghurs.
But Stuff Circuit inquiries show none of this has prompted New Zealand organisations that deal with Hikvision to walk away.
Take Tauranga Council. It told Stuff Circuit it continues to add about 10 new Hikvision cameras a year to its current stock of 762 and has no plans to change brand.
The technology being used in Tauranga includes an automatic number plate recognition system and the latest infra-red camera technology.
According to the council’s camera supplier, Atlas Gentech, “Having the new Hikvision Darkfighter technology in the camera allows the operators to see colour in very low light situations. This enables them to direct Police to specific offenders wearing coloured clothing making faster and more accurate arrests.”
Asked about Hikvision’s links to the abuses in Xinjiang and the trade ban in the USA, a Tauranga City Council spokesperson said, ‘’Any investigation into accusations of a product we are using isn’t something that we are mandated to undertake. However, as a user of Hikvision equipment we have obviously taken a keen interest in developments.”
That “keen interest” doesn’t seem to have amounted to anything.
Nor has Auckland Transport acted.
It has thousands of Hikvision cameras in use, including 4k cameras positioned on the Sky Tower that can zoom in 36 times on a target.
An AT spokesperson said it was continuing to add Hikvision cameras to its network - there are now 2593 in operation - but it was going through a process of due diligence with camera supplier Atlas Gentech, to ensure the company complied with AT’s 2019 Supplier Code of Conduct.
“The code covers areas such as ‘human rights and workplace conditions’ as well as ‘business resilience’,’’ the spokesman said.
“The onus in the first instance is put on the supplier to ensure compliance in their wider organisation and supply chain – we can’t carry out an end to end “policing role” throughout our whole extended supply chain - we rely in the first instance on our supplier partnerships and commitments to help us achieve that.”
Atlas Gentech has a contract with AT until March 2022. The company would not comment, saying it was a commercial agreement. Nor would they answer questions about the company’s links to Xinjiang.
What about at government level?
Correspondence supplied to Stuff Circuit under the Official Information Act shows concerns were raised about Hikvision at the time of the US blacklisting - but the concern didn’t last long.
A Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) internal email shows a Stuff news report about Hikvision’s links to human rights abuses in Xinjiang was circulated to senior management in October 2019.
As a result, staff were asked to do ‘’a quick stocktake on numbers and locations of Hikvision cameras’’.
But fast forward to 2021 and when Stuff Circuit asks the Ministry what happened as a result of that stocktake, and the answer is: nothing. “An ad-hoc stocktake was initiated”, MBIE said, but it was “then halted, as MBIE had no concerns with Hikvision cameras, given the way it is currently using them”.
MBIE couldn’t tell us how many Hikvision cameras it has in use - it refused to answer that part of our OIA request because “determining the number of Hikvision cameras installed would involve substantial collation or research”.
So in summary, “The Ministry is aware of the US blacklisting of Hikvision,” but it has no concerns, it says, again because of “the way it is currently using them.”
But isn’t MBIE conveniently asking itself the wrong question? Surely the concern is not how the cameras are being used, but whether MBIE should be buying them at all from a company supplying technology used in human rights violations against Uyghurs.
And there are rules in place that govern such buying.
The government spends $41 billion a year on goods and services and there are policies guiding agencies. They can exclude a supplier if there is evidence of human rights violations in its supply chain - but the rule doesn’t apply to councils
There’s ample such evidence in relation to Hikvision . Yet the cameras keep on being bought.
Both Icehouse Ventures and Rocos refused to be interviewed by Stuff Circuit and in their communications with us were initially very comfortable with their iFlytek partnerships.
Then, during the course of our investigation, they must have had a re-think.
First, the board of Icehouse Ventures emailed to say its board had requested an investigation.
And then Rocos had an abrupt change of heart, considering its earlier public celebrations of the partnership..
“Rocos is no longer involved in any projects with iFlytek”, it said in an email. “And there are no future projects planned.”
It said its platform was never integrated with iFlytek’s iFLYOS voice interaction system, as initially promoted.
Where does the responsibility lie in terms of navigating the ethics of such partnerships? What official guidance is there for businesses?
Rocos says it consults with government agencies when engaging with overseas entities.
But when we followed up with the company, asking specifically if Government agencies were consulted on the iFlytek deal, they replied: “We've got nothing further to add.”
Icehouse Ventures didn’t respond when we asked how it sits in a moral sense to be doing business with a Chinese company involved in human rights abuses against Uyghurs, but said that as part of its investigation, the board has requested guidance from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade over the US and other countries’ blacklists.
“We intend to follow this guidance with regard to managing all of our agreements with international organisations on an ongoing basis”, it said, but points out that the existing guidance “does not address New Zealand’s stance on other nations’ blacklists or policy around individual organisations”.
Icehouse is quite right about that, and Alexander Gillespie, Professor of International Law at Waikato University, says that should change.
“I think the onus should be on the government to help guide businesses.”
“At the moment, without official guidance and/or law on this topic saying where they can, or cannot trade, they are not doing anything (legally) wrong under New Zealand law”, he says. “It would be best if NZ developed a clear policy in this area.”
There’s a moral question too, of course, as well as a legal one. And the Uyghur New Zealanders we spoke to for Deleted must surely have the authority to answer whether it’s problematic that businesses - public or private - are partnering with dangerous Chinese companies.
Bilal* doesn’t hesitate.
“They have blood on their hands,” he tells us. “When World War II ended everyone said ‘never again’.
“But the promise has gone away and ‘never again’ is happening. And at the government level and at company level, everybody is turning a blind eye.”
*name changed to protect security.
As well as investigating New Zealand business and political relationships with controversial Chinese companies, Deleted hears Uyghur New Zealanders’ stories about family members who have disappeared under China’s brutal crackdown. Deleted was produced with the support of NZ On Air.
Why? Because our Stuff Circuit team delivers challenging stories that matter. Circuit's confronting documentaries on topics as diverse as abortion, NZ's legacy in Afghanistan, and online radicalisation are the result of months of dogged reporting.
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