Leaked Tape Reveals How Spy Camera Firm Used Ex-U.S. Official to Cover Up Uyghur Abuses

Hikvision released one exculpatory line of a report by a former State Department official and war crimes prosecutor. The new tape tells the whole story.

This photo taken on June 4, 2019 shows schoolchildren walking below surveillance cameras in Akto, south of Kashgar, in China's western Xinjiang region. - While Muslims around the world celebrated the end of Ramadan with early morning prayers and festivities this week, the recent destruction of dozens of mosques in Xinjiang highlights the increasing pressure Uighurs and other ethnic minorities face in the heavily-policed region.
Schoolchildren walking below surveillance cameras in Akto, south of Kashgar, in China's western Xinjiang region on June 4, 2019. Photo: Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images

In the western territory of Xinjiang, known as the Uyghur Autonomous Region, China has created intense surveillance networks to monitor and persecute the population. Cameras line the streets, as well as the doors of homes and mosques, anchoring a system of repression that has led to the mass detention of thousands of people.

Hikvision’s cameras make up a large part of this system. But the world’s largest security camera manufacturer has always denied their complicity in the violation of human rights against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.

In 2019, facing increasing U.S. sanctions, Hikvison commissioned a human rights review of its five largest police projects in Xinjiang, which has a population of over 25 million. The company hired Pierre-Richard Prosper, the former ambassador-at-large for war crimes in the Bush administration State Department and a war crimes prosecutor at the United Nations in the late 1990s.

The full review remained secret, but Hikvision released one sentence saying the company did not knowingly engage in human rights abuses. A recent leaked recording, however, illustrated how much more Hikvision actually knew — and that these Hikvision projects were connected to companies that the U.S. just sanctioned.

The result makes for a potentially awkward scenario: A former U.S. official with a robust history of human rights work was being used to cleanse the image of a surveillance company now linked to violations so severe that they incurred U.S. sanctions. Prosper’s remarks in the leaked recording also make him the first person to publicly admit Hikvision’s complicity.

Last month, Hikvision convened a conference on environmental, social, and governance, or ESG, in Sydney, Australia. Prosper, now an attorney for legal and lobbying firm ArentFox Schiff, led an “introduction to human rights compliance” session.

“In the contracts, we saw some concerning language where it said Uyghurs, mosques, and this and that, which would appear that the contracts were looking at groups and not isolated to a criminal, let’s say,” Prosper said in the leaked recording obtained by IPVM and shared with The Intercept. “So it was very general.”

The Chinese government is the controlling stakeholder of Hikvision, with over 40 percent ownership, but the company still calls itself an “independent” corporation. Last month, the U.S. Department of Commerce added five Hikvision subsidiaries from Xinjiang to its trade blacklist, after Hikvision was added to the entity list in 2019. (The U.S. military previously bought Hikvision cameras in violation of the sanctions, according to prior reporting by The Intercept.)

In February, the company sued the U.S. government and the Federal Communications Commission over a ban restricting the sale of Hikvision products in the U.S. (Hikvision, ArentFox, and Prosper did not respond to requests for comment on this story.)

And, what’s more, the locations of the Hikvision police projects in Xinjiang match up exactly with the names of the subsidiaries: Luopu, Moyu, Pishan, Urumqi, and Yutian.

The outer wall of a complex which includes what is believed to be a re-education camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, on the outskirts of Hotan, in China's northwestern Xinjiang region, May 31, 2019.

The outer wall of a complex which includes what is believed to be a reeducation camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, on the outskirts of Hotan in China’s western Xinjiang region on May 31, 2019.

Photo: Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images

In Xinjiang, Hikvision had bid on approximately 15 projects and was awarded five, according to Prosper’s speech in Sydney. “In the end, Hikvision was awarded these contracts and began to work on the project,” Prosper explained. He laid out how the central Chinese and Xinjiang governments built the surveillance system across cities.

For the review, Prosper and his team received approximately 15,000 pages of documents and read about 5,000 “line by line,” he said. The contracts were explicit about their use against Uyghur communities, for example, in Moyu County, with a population of over half a million in southwestern Xinjiang.

“Uyghurs account for about 97%, and most of them believe in Islam,” according to a Hikvision contract obtained by The Intercept. “Moyu County has a strong religious atmosphere since its history, and the enemy social situation is relatively complicated.”

At the conference, Prosper talked about the project in Moyu. “The most concerning on paper was the Moyu project,” he said. “It was most concerning because of the language in the contract. And the language identified terrorism, identified Uyghurs, and then basically explained that they want to look at various facilities and all that, religious facilities.”

Prosper failed to mention that the Moyu project included panoramic cameras for its “re-education” centers — internment camps that Amnesty International has decried as “places of brainwashing, torture and punishment” — as well as a camera at every entrance of Moyu’s nearly 1,000 mosques. Documents have also previously shown that over 300 citizens of Moyu were sent to detention centers.

Human rights groups have been sounding the alarm about the scale and intrusion of the surveillance schemes and data they collect.

“The surveillance systems have increased the speeds and empowered authorities in the ability to control a large population quickly,” said Maya Wang, associate director in the Asia division at Human Rights Watch. “It was really quite unprecedented I think in human history.”

At the conference, while trying to play down Hikvision’s knowledge of data collection, Prosper inadvertently confirmed the sheer scale of the surveillance. “The command centers were basically more a hub, data center,” he said, “where the confirmation will come in and then from there whatever government officials were working there, they will be responsible for disseminating.”

Surveillance cameras are seen outside the headquarters of Chinese security technology company Hikvision in Hangzhou in eastern China's Zhejiang province, May 22, 2019.

Surveillance cameras are seen outside the headquarters of Chinese security technology company Hikvision in Hangzhou in eastern China’s Zhejiang province on May 22, 2019.

Photo: Chinatopix via AP

Outwardly, Hikvision held the weight of their investigation on Prosper’s decorated history in human rights work. Notes from a February meeting between Hikvision and a government biometrics commissioner overseeing Scottish authorities said, “Hikvision accept[s] that some might not accept these findings on the basis that the research was funded by them. However, they point to the credentials of Mr Prosper as an internationally respected war crimes investigator.”

Yet at the ESG conference, Prosper drastically underplayed Hikvision’s role and shifted blame largely to “security issues” and cultural differences — despite large bodies of evidence that illustrate the genocidal nature of persecution against the Uyghur population.

“Chinese companies were not getting the second half of the story. They were given the first half that there was terrorism,” he said at the conference. “But they were not hearing about the international community’s complaints about potential abuses or whatever it may be. It was a blind spot.”

According to the company’s own reports, they were well aware of the concerns. The 2019 report announcing the hire of ArentFox, the firm where Prosper is a partner, said, “Over the past year, there have been numerous reports about ways that video surveillance products have been involved in human rights violations. We read every report seriously and are listening to voices from outside the company.”

While Hikvision has disclosed these five Xinjiang police projects in its annual reports for the last four years, they were not disclosed in the most recent 2022 report, published this month.

Prosper seemed more concerned with the company’s use of language than its role in persecution. “We want you to be sensitive to language that may cause you to raise an eyebrow,” Prosper said. “We, in the West, instinctively or initially, everything is human rights, individual rights. … If you want to be a globally respected company, you need to understand that.”


Millions of Leaked Police Files Detail Suffocating Surveillance of China’s Uyghur Minority

While Prosper’s recording reveals the extent of Hikvision’s complicity for the first time from the company itself, activists are frustrated that the evidence has already been extensively documented.

“A revelation like this should not be necessary for the entire private sector,” Louisa Greve, director of global advocacy for the Uyghur Human Rights Project, told The Intercept, citing the more than 60 reports the project has produced, as well as projects by Amnesty and Human Rights Watch. “People are sent to prison for having a chat with their own mother in the Uyghur region. What more does it take?”

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