Around two dozen of the UK’s most senior civil servants flew to China last year to meet with executives of some of the country’s largest technology firms, NS Tech can reveal.
The meetings took place over the course of three days in May 2019 as China was facing mounting condemnation for its use of technology to persecute the Muslim Uighur population, and censor news from Hong Kong.
Over the course of the trade trip, the permanent secretaries of the departments for business; digital and culture; exiting the EU; trade; and others met with counterparts in the Chinese government, as well as executives at Tencent, Ping An Technology and the Internet Society of China.
NS Tech has obtained minutes of the meetings, the details of which have never previously been reported, under transparency laws. Although it has been heavily redacted, the cache of documents provides an insight into the expansion plans of some of the biggest Chinese tech firms, and the nature of future UK-China relations in the government’s vision of a post-Brexit Britain.
The Chinese tech industry has faced intense scrutiny in recent years for the role it plays in censoring free speech, surveilling citizens and facilitating AI-driven ethnic cleansing in the province of Xinjiang.
But while the subject of AI ethics arose in meetings during the trade trip, the British delegation appeared to veer away from the most pressing ethical issues concerning Chinese tech.
During a meeting at the Internet Society of China in Beijing on 8 May, delegates including the permanent secretaries of the departments of digital and culture, education, and business discussed the subject of algorithmic discrimination.
Some members of the society, including Huawei, have allegedly sold equipment via a third party to Xinjiang’s Public Security Bureau, which has built a surveillance system that has been used to target the persecuted Uiighur population of Xinjiang. But British delegates appeared to avoid the subject, instead discussing safer topics such as personalised news feeds.
“For the risks caused by biased AI algorithms [redacted] gave an example about some news reader Apps push [sic] out tailored feeds based on the users’ profile,” the minutes state. “[Redacted] is calling for more regulation and urging the government to take more action on legislation for ‘transparent algorithms’.”
During the meeting, attendees also raised the subject of antitrust regulation. The minutes do not reveal which firms, if any, were referenced, but it is likely that the society’s concerns focused on US rivals. Google, Amazon and Apple are among those accused of exploiting their market dominance in recent years.
The minutes state: “The two sides also touched on the regulation of the Internet giants as well as the antitrust acts and how to boost a competitive ecosystem. [One attendee] is calling for actions to create a mechanism to resolve the disputes among the internet giants.”
The revelation that senior members of the British government discussed antitrust concerns with Chinese tech firms may anger some US tech executives, whose key line of defence against regulation is that it is likely to play into the hands of rivals in China.
In another meeting, the senior civil servants discussed Tencent’s hugely successful Wechat wallet app, and the company’s “UK interest”.
Several high-end London retailers that cater for the Chinese market offer the option to pay via WeChat and the company already works with British firms on its creative output. But the minutes suggest that Tencent is considering further UK collaboration and possible expansion.
Minutes of the meeting obtained by NS Tech state: “[The Department for International Trade] will follow up with the respective Tencent teams on their specific UK interest [redacted].”
It added that the visit constituted an “interactive tour that displayed the history and key products of Tencent”. “Highlights included: WeChat live coverage display and usage scenarios, in particular the Wechat wallet app, and associated business applications.”
As China’s largest social media firm, Tencent was praised for providing a platform for people to speak up after Facebook and Twitter were banned in China. But it has also faced criticism for aiding censorship. Chinese authorities monitor the activity of WeChat users and reports suggest that Muslims have been imprisoned for using the app to preach about Islam.
One study shows that WeChat even censors messages containing politically sensitive subjects, such as human rights abuses, without informing the sender.
A Government spokesperson said: “We continue to engage constructively with China to tackle shared global challenges.
“We are also clear and direct where China’s actions are incompatible with our values, both publicly and in private.”
Analysis: what these meetings say about post-Brexit UK-China relations
The Chinese telecoms giant Huawei is one of the most generous foreign investors in the UK economy, having vowed to spend £3bn on British services and technology over the coming years.
As one of China’s biggest companies, Huawei is likely to play a key role in any future trade deal between London and Beijing, and Downing Street has so far resisted pressure from the White House to block the company from operating in Britain’s 5G rollout.
The minutes of these meetings suggest that the UK considers China’s tech industry as gateway for further collaboration as it attempts to forge closer links with the world’s second largest economy.
But there are major ethical concerns relating to Chinese tech and some observers may be concerned to see that the UK has rejected the opportunity to use its soft power to put pressure on the sector.
Anna Bacciarelli, a researcher and adviser at Amnesty Tech, told NS Tech: “Chinese state authorities are known to run one of the world’s most far-reaching and repressive internet regimes that denies human rights for millions of people.
“Yet nowhere in the unredacted parts of these documents do UK delegates raise human rights concerns regarding the countrywide censorship and surveillance of internet access, or the tech-fuelled tracking and persecution of the Uighur population, where facial recognition is a key component in an abhorrent campaign of discrimination.”