While national security concerns triggered the October 7 U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) export control rule, human rights were not an afterthought.
The new U.S. rule targets exports of advanced node chips and supercomputers to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), as well as U.S. persons and equipment that support Chinese development and production. This goes beyond previous measures that restricted commercial chips to Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei and added a number of its affiliates to the U.S. entity list, in part due to its connection to PRC surveillance efforts.
Analysts have focused on how the new controls will interrupt Chinese defense technology development, including conventional weapons, weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), hypersonic weapons, and cognitive electronic warfare capabilities. Less discussed is how they will curb China’s ongoing human rights violations by cutting off key inputs necessary to maintain its surveillance state.
In addition to hard defense technologies, advanced chips power the artificial intelligence (AI) systems and supercomputers that allow China to process massive amounts of personal data from a range of inputs – including phone trackers, biometric markers, and e-commerce and travel records – to monitor and chart minority or dissident targets across the country.
For example, since 2016 Chinese police have conducted mass, compulsory DNA collection campaigns across the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), including sampling children as young as 5 years old. Similar collections have long been taking place in Xinjiang, where the PRC genetically tracks the Uyghur population and perpetuates serious human rights violations including family separation, forced medical treatment, and individual incidents of sexual and gender-based violence. Chinese police are using Uyghur DNA samples to develop facial mapping technology, a key node in its data fusion surveillance network.
Despite the massive human rights implications, industry leaders have voiced concern over the new export control rule’s clarity, fairness, and scope. While speaking at a recent Center for a New American Security (CNAS) event, Under Secretary of Commerce for Industry and Security Alan Estevez noted the need for continued dialogue as these controls deploy and maintained that industry fairness comes with multilateral burden sharing among all top semiconductor states. Estevez likewise confirmed that if other states adopted similar regimes, they would be afforded U.S. control carve-outs.
These new controls go farther than ever before to undermine China’s technological progress, but the stakes are also higher as the international community stands on the precipice of massive advances in defense and surveillance technology. Given the complexity of global supply chains, complementary commitment from allied semiconductor states – especially fellow chipmaking tool producers Japan and the Netherlands – is critical to restricting Chinese access to the materials, equipment, and advanced chips that enable its abuses. If the United States withholds these exports but Japan and the Netherlands fill the gaps, U.S. controls remain a navigable inconvenience for the PRC.
These new U.S. controls should resonate with Japan and the Netherlands, since both have recently spoken out against the state of human rights in China. In early February 2022, the Japan House of Representatives put forth a resolution with multiparty and near unanimous support, calling for its government to, “in cooperation with the international community, monitor the serious human rights situation and employ comprehensive measures to help those people in need.” Meanwhile, the Netherlands was the first European country to pass a non-binding motion calling the treatment endured by the Uyghurs a genocide.
Though neither Japan’s resolution nor the Netherlands’ motion directly called out the PRC, both countries have since supported statements with stronger language. Following a damning report by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Netherlands delivered a joint statement on behalf of 47 countries — including the United States and Japan — at the U.N. Human Rights Council, graphically recounting China’s abuses including “reports of ongoing widespread surveillance” in Xinjiang, the “deterioration of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong, and the human rights situation in Tibet.”
Both Japan and the Netherlands voted in favor of the ultimately rejected October 6 U.N. Human Rights Council draft decision (A/HRC/51/L.6) to formally debate the situation in Xinjiang. And more recently, both signed an October 31 U.N. General Assembly Third Committee joint statement, decrying “evidence of large-scale arbitrary detention and systematic use of invasive surveillance on the basis of religion and ethnicity” in Xinjiang and calling for international cooperation to create “more inclusive societies where all can fully enjoy their human rights.”
Publicly condemning the PRC’s human rights violations is important but developing and deploying concrete policies to curb them is critical.
The new U.S. export control rule holds that the United States will no longer hand a match to the arsonist. Japan and the Netherlands must enact similar advanced chip controls to ensure they do not enable the very practices they denounce.