Both City Hall and central government trade bodies have been accussed of trying to lure a Beijing-backed AI tech firm linked to China’s crackdown on Uighur muslims.
London & Partners, City Hall’s outfit for luring international businesses to set-up in London, and the Department for International Trade (DiT) held talks with iFlyTek last year.
iFlyTek is an voice recognition and AI company with close to 900m users. That large database is potentially one of the reasons why the AI company has a contract with the Chinese state police.
Human Rights Watch in 2017 said iFlyTek was working with Chinese state police on building up that database to identify voices for surveillance activities including in the state of Xinjiang, where more than one million Uighur muslims are detained.
The company is currently on a US trade blacklist, which troubled a $350m fundraising move by iFlyTek in 2019.
Despite the links to Uighur oppression and the US embargo, in April 2020 London & Partners claimed in a report to the Greater London Authority that cited the Chinese AI company under a section titled “new significant project” — indicating it was in talks with iFlyTek to expand its presence in London.
The Department for International Trade had similar discussions, which a City Hall source said happened in May and were even farther along than those with London & Partners.
Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, said Mayor of London Sadiq Khan should use his political judgement and “stand up for the ability to have equal opportunity and equal association”.
Tory mayoralty candidate Shaun Bailey said London & Partners was the mayor’s “PR firm” and that Khan should ban them from operating in China after they “boasted about their links to a company complicit in the abuses against the Uighurs”.
“Sadiq Khan was happy to start Twitter wars with Donald Trump, but he won’t stand up to the Chinese Government on their human rights abuses.”
A London & Partners spokesperson said it had only had early talks with the AI company.
“London & Partners have had early conversations with iFlytek about their plans to bring their translation services to the UK, as part of our international investment work.
“As with all our trade and investment activity, we act within government policy guidelines. We will look hard at the company’s record.”
Neither Bailey nor Tugendhat commented on the Department for International Trade meetings with iFlyTek.
DiT did not deny that talks with the Beijing-backed AI firm had taken place
A spokesperson for DIT said: “The UK government has implemented a series of strict controls to help to ensure that British organisations, whether public or private sector, are not complicit in, nor profiting from, the human rights violations in Xinjiang, and spoken out widely against these abuses.”