As the United Nations accuses the Chinese government of setting up massive camps in the far-west Xinjiang province to imprison an unknown number of ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslims, Human Rights Watch reports that China is carrying out mass surveillance there using a mobile app that lets authorities monitor the Muslim population. We speak with investigative reporter Lee Fang about an unexpected investor in Chinese surveillance: Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s son. And we speak with Human Rights Watch China director, Sophie Richardson.
AMY GOODMAN: I just want to let people know, for people who are reading about this, Uyghur is spelled U-Y-G-H-U-R. That’s Uyghur. We are joined also by Lee Fang, investigative journalist with The Intercept, to look at the unexpected investor in Chinese surveillance: Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden. Fang’s most recent article is headlined Chinese Fund Backed By Hunter Biden Invested In Technology Used To Surveil Muslims. Lee, thanks for joining us again on Democracy Now! Explain what you learned.
LEE FANG: Amy, thanks for having me. China’s sprawling police state relies heavily on a high-tech security apparatus to monitor, track and incarcerate those viewed as a threat to the Chinese state. That’s dissidents, activists, journalists and increasingly the entire Uyghur Muslim population in Western China. And a key component of this security apparatus is the collection of biometric data. This biometric data collection comes from a number of private sector firms. One of the major Chinese startups involved in this biometric data collection is a company called Face++. This is a facial recognition software company, a Chinese company. It provided a key license to the app that Sophie has explained, and it’s also used in security cameras all over the country. Now, in the last week we have seen a number of Western reports scrutinizing the Chinese investors that stand to profit, that have invested in Face++. But in our story on Friday, we revealed that there are a number of American investors that also stand to profit from this mass surveillance that are also invested in Face++, one of whom is Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And Lee, how exactly did — and when — did Hunter Biden form his Chinese investment company, Bohai Harvest RST? How did that come about?
LEE FANG: Well, over the last 10 years, Hunter Biden has been involved in a number of investment opportunities and business deals. In 2008, he de-registered as a lobbyist and transitioned into this investment career. In 2014, he traveled to China and formed this very exclusive investor partnership with the Chinese government, partnering with the Bank of China. That’s one of the largest state owned banks. And in 2017, Hunter Biden and his company, Bohai Harvest RST, participated in the C Series investment round in Face++, helping the company raise over $400 million, bringing its valuation to currently over $3 billion. So he’s far from a passive investor. In fact, this business deal shows that he has been given really exclusive access to investing in some Chinese—China’s most largest technology companies. And he certainly stands to benefit as this company continues to grow.
AMY GOODMAN: There are Democrats who have pointed out that this issue of Hunter Biden, Joe Biden, the presidential candidate’s son, is being pushed by, oh, The Daily Caller and Fox to discredit Biden. Your response, Lee Fang?
LEE FANG: Look, the tactic by special interests, both domestic and foreign, to put politicians on the payroll of any interest group seeking to seek influence over a powerful politician is a bipartisan issue. It is not a right-wing issue or a left-wing issue. I can go through a laundry list of Democrats and Republicans in Congress who have had family members, sons and daughters or spouses, that were added to lobbying firms or corporations to peddle influence.
And this dynamic extends certainly to the White House as well. The Trump sons, including Don Jr., have received exclusive licensing agreements and permits to expand Trump hotels in Indonesia and in India and so on. Ivanka has received special licenses to sell her products in China. We see this dynamic and this criticism, in addition to the Biden family, coming from folks from across the ideological spectrum, and it is not particular to the China issue.
In 2003, one of the most controversial votes Joe Biden took—he joined with Republicans to pass the 2003 bankruptcy bill. At the time, one of the largest credit card issuers in the country was MBNA, which was lobbying for that legislation. MBNA hired Hunter Biden as a consultant at a time when they were lobbying for Joe Biden to pass that law. In 2014, when Joe Biden was engaged in high-stakes negotiations in Ukraine at a time at the height of Russian aggression in that region, Hunter Biden was hired and placed on the board of a major Ukrainian fracking company, paid as much as $50,000 a month.
And now with this China issue, we’re seeing a lot of criticism of Joe Biden and his son, because again, Hunter Biden gained exclusive access to this very unusual investment vehicle, investment deal, with the Chinese state at a time when Joe Biden was leading negotiations, traveling between Beijing and Washington, D.C., as the vice president. And it will pose serious conflicts of interest as Joe Biden seeks the presidential nomination.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That’s one thing I wanted to ask you about. Because clearly, this would, to some critics of the corporate wing of the Democratic party, this will definitely give them cause to raise that this is a repetition of the Clinton family’s corruption issues over their dealings with foreign governments as well.
LEE FANG: Well, that certainly may be a political issue, but it is also a genuine policy concern for any observer or any critic of U.S.-China relations. And look, it is not exclusive to the Biden family. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, was once a big critic of China policy, of China human rights. Later he became a big proponent of trade relations with China and kind of ended his very vocal criticism of China. Later, actually after the 2016 election, Mitch McConnell’s sister-in-law, Angela Chow, was added to the board of Bank of China. There are many instances, both Republican and Democrat, where China has attempted to seek influence with powerful policy figures.
Joe Biden, I should note, has long been a friend of China. In 2000, when there was a major vote about permanent normal trade relations with China, Joe Biden rallied Democratic support and he basically argued that China does not pose an economic threat to the U.S. That China, at the time—this was in the year 2000—had the economy of the size of the Netherlands, and that China would never pose a threat to American manufacturing. So Joe Biden has been a friend of China for a very long time, and it appears China has been very friendly to the Joe Biden family as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Sophie Richardson, I wanted to ask you about this Foreign Policy article that was out in March headlined U.S. Firms Are Helping Build China’s Orwellian State. Can you talk about this and how this relates to the mass surveillance, particularly of the Muslim community in China?
SOPHIE RICHARDSON: Sure. Just picking up on one of Lee’s points, I think American companies and funds and portfolios of investments that are engaged with Chinese surveillance companies need to stop right now and have a long, close look at what exactly they are invested in, and where they actually want to be putting money. But we looked at one particular company, a Massachusetts-based medical technology firm called Thermo Fisher Scientific, which we found to be selling DNA sequencers to the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau. For which they had the right export licensesÑlet’s be clear about that. But they were doing so at a time when we were documenting the Xinjiang authorities imposing compulsory collection of DNA samples from everyone across the region between the ages of 12 and 65, under the guise of a free public healthcare program.
And we went to this company several times and said, “What’s your due diligence strategy to make sure that your sales and operations aren’t contributing to human rights violations?” And they never really answered that question. Members of Congress asked them. And finally The New York Times wrote about their activities, at which point the company said, “We’ve decided to stop selling this particular technology in that particular region.” But we don’t know what they continue to sell to other parts of the country. And the reality is we still aren’t any clearer about what strategies they have in place to answer that due diligence question. And I think that applies equally to any company—American, European, Australian, anyone’s companies—that are doing business in a region that has been labeled by U.N. experts as a rights-free zone.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about a separate China-related issue. Last week, tens of thousands of people in Hong Kong marched peacefully against a proposal that would allow people in Hong Kong to be extradited to China for trial, where they would obviously face fewer protections than in Hong Kong, which has long operated under the “one country, two systems” mantra. Could you talk about that and your concerns about that?
SOPHIE RICHARDSON: Sure. I think if this agreement goes ahead, we have gone really from “one country, two systems” to “one country, one system” because it would effectively gut some of the protections that have long been available to people in Hong Kong, but not in the rest of Mainland China, if they are to be extradited. There are all sorts of ramifications for knowing the evidence against you and having access to counsel. And it has been seen widely in Hong Kong in the last couple of weeks as a serious encroachment, particularly in Hong Kong’s judicial independence and integrity. And that is an institution in Hong Kong that has always stood the territory apart from the rest of the mainland, and if it loses that kind of authority and integrity, it really is seen as Hong Kong just becoming another part of the mainland.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, on this trade negotiation that is taking place this week, Sophie, President Trump announcing plans to increase tariffs $200 billion, from 10% to 25%. Also threatening to impose new tariffs on another $325 billion of Chinese products.
Your thoughts about this move, regarding trade with China? And just as the Trump administration says they will not impose any kind of sanctions related to what we are talking about.
SOPHIE RICHARDSON: We don’t particularly have a view on things like tariffs. We have a lot of views on the use of sanctions, particularly the Global Magnitsky sanctions, which are meant to be imposed on individuals or entities that are credibly alleged to have been involved in serious human rights violations. So people like the current Xinjiang Party Secretary Chen Quanguo would clearly be a target for precisely these kinds of sanctions. And especially given Secretary Pompeo’s and other administration officials’ willingness to be publicly very critical of China’s actions in Xinjiang, the fact that the administration is not going ahead with these kinds of sanctions is not just giving China a free pass and enabling it; it is really undercutting the very purpose of those sanctions at all.
And so it is also worth pointing out that this is an administration that doesn’t seem to have trouble sanctioning lots of different people and companies for different kinds of behavior. And so the unwillingness on this particular matter is seriously problematic and really effectively is saying to the Chinese government, “Do what you want in Xinjiang,” and saying to Uyghurs, “We’re not actually really concerned about what’s happening to you or your family members.”
AMY GOODMAN: Sophie Richardson, we want to thank you very much for being with us. China director for Human Rights Watch. We’re going to link to your whole comprehensive report. And Lee Fang, investigative journalist at The Intercept. Thanks also to Rushan Abbas, who is the Uyghur-American activist. When we come back, we look at Republican efforts to suppress the vote in Florida with voting rights activist Desmond Meade. Back in 30 seconds.