US Bans American Investment in Chinese AI Company Over Human Rights Concerns

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The United States on Dec. 10 put a ban on American investment in Chinese artificial intelligence (AI) firm SenseTime over concerns it’s aiding the Chinese regime’s repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

The 7-year-old firm, one of the world’s highest-valued AI startups and leading developer of facial-recognition technology, was placed in the U.S. list of “Chinese military-industrial complex companies,” overshadowing the company’s plans to land Hong Kong initial public offering this month, where it aims to raise $767 million. The U.S. measure forces American investors to divest within 60 days of the announcement.

The Treasury Department found SenseTime responsible for developing facial recognition programs that can determine a target’s ethnicity, “with a particular focus on identifying ethnic Uyghurs.”

Shenzhen Sensetime Technology Co. Ltd., SenseTime’s wholly-owned subsidiary, has highlighted its ability to recognize Uyghurs with or without sunglasses, beards, or masks, the Department said.

The move on Friday was among a suite of sanctions announced by the Biden administration, which targeted 24 other individuals and entities tied to Beijing, Myanmar military entities, and North Korea marking International Human Rights Day.

More than a million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities are estimated to be held in internment camps in Xinjiang, which the United States and human rights groups have deemed a genocide. The ongoing repression has prompted the United States and some allies to declare a diplomatic boycott of Beijing’s 2022 Winter Olympics.

SenseTime’s Beijing subsidiary has already come under U.S. scrutiny in recent years over its role in supplying mass surveillance technology in Xinjiang. It was one of eight Chinese tech firms placed on a Commerce Department trade blacklist in 2019, barring the company from buying parts and components from American businesses without U.S. government approval.

The Treasury Department on Friday also applied sanctions on Erken Tuniyaz, chairman of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and his predecessor Shohrat Zakir.

The two, along with Hu Lianhe, a senior Chinese Communist Party official that experts believe played a key role in drafting the regime’s policies in Xinjiang, as well as Chen Mingguo, director of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau, were also slapped with visa restrictions that would bar U.S. entry to them and their immediate relatives.

Dozens of Chinese officials and companies have been sanctioned by the United States over Xinjiang.

By Eva Fu

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