Microsoft’s work with Chinese military university raises eyebrows

A Microsoft official said the research is “fully complies with US and local laws.” (File/AFP)
Updated 12 April 2019

Microsoft’s work with Chinese military university raises eyebrows

  • The research covers a number of AI topics, such as face analysis and machine reading
  • Microsoft’s work with the Chinese military-backed university comes amid increasing scrutiny around China-US academic partnerships

BEIJING: Microsoft has been collaborating with researchers linked to a Chinese military-backed university on artificial intelligence, elevating concerns that US firms are contributing to China’s high-tech surveillance and censorship apparatus.
Over the past year, researchers at Microsoft Research Asia in Beijing have co-authored at least three papers with scholars affiliated with China’s National University of Defense Technology (NUDT), which is overseen by the Central Military Commission.
The research covers a number of AI topics, such as face analysis and machine reading, which enables computers to parse and understand online text.
While it is not unusual for US and Chinese scholars to conduct joint research, Microsoft’s work with the military-backed NUDT comes amid increasing scrutiny around China-US academic partnerships, as well as China’s high-tech surveillance drive in the northwest region of Xinjiang.
“The new methods and technologies described in their joint papers could very well be contributing to China’s crackdown on minorities in Xinjiang, for which they are using facial recognition technology,” said Helena Legarda, a research associate at the Mercator Institute for China Studies, who focuses on China’s foreign and security policies.
“Many of these advanced technologies are dual-use, so they could also contribute to the PLA’s (People’s Liberation Army’s) modernization and informatization drive, helping the Chinese military move closer to the 2049 goal of being a world-class military,” she added.
In an email, a Microsoft spokesman told AFP that the company’s researchers “conduct fundamental research with leading scholars and experts from around the world to advance our understanding of technology.”
In each case, the research “fully complies with US and local laws” and is published to “ensure transparency so everyone can benefit from our work,” he said Thursday.

The growing concerns around human rights violations in Xinjiang have also added pressure to US firms with business in the region, where some one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim Turkic language-speaking minorities are held in re-education camps, according to a UN panel of experts.
In February, US biotechnology manufacturer Thermo Fisher announced it would stop selling equipment used to create a DNA database of the Uighur minority to China.
That same month, a security researcher exposed a massive database compiled by Chinese tech firm SenseNets, which stored the personal information and tracked the locations of 2.6 million people in Xinjiang.
At the time of the data leak, Microsoft was listed as one of SenseNets’ partners. The company declined to comment.
But experts have also stressed that, in the case of NUDT, Microsoft’s co-published work is open and publicly accessible.
“The authors are basically sharing with the rest of the world how to replicate their approaches, models, and results,” said Andy Chun, an adjunct computer science professor at City University of Hong Kong.
That allows others to potentially “build upon, enhance and expand this research,” he said.
Microsoft Research Asia also tends to focus on long-term research or projects that are not immediately transferable to applications, such as those that could be used to monitor or suppress a population of people, pointed out Yu Zhou, a professor at Vassar College, who studies globalization and China’s high-tech industry.
And while such concerns are certainly valid, it may be difficult for AI researchers to avoid China, she told AFP.
“It’s a field where Chinese researchers have made quite a lot of advancements, and they are generating data which is the raw material for this industry — so how are you going to avoid that?“


Despite agreement, China purchase of US agriculture lags

Updated 10 August 2020

Despite agreement, China purchase of US agriculture lags

  • The two sides are set to meet on Saturday to discuss the deal, American media says

NEW YORK: Seven months after the United States and China signed a preliminary agreement to temper their trade war, Beijing’s purchases of US agricultural goods have yet to reach the deal’s target.

As President Donald Trump readies for a tough reelection battle in November, US media reported the two sides are set to meet beginning August 15 to discuss the deal, which calls for China to sharply increase buying American goods and services this year and next.

But according to data compiled by the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE), Chinese agricultural purchases at the end of June were far from where they should be at this point in the year.

They had reached only 39 percent of their semiannual target, according to US figures, or 48 percent, based on Chinese figures.

“If we get back to what the level of trade was in 2017, we’ll be lucky,” said Chad Bown, a PIIE senior fellow who authored the study, referring to the year before the trade war began.

Under the deal’s terms, China agreed to increase agricultural imports $32 billion over the next 2 years from 2017 levels.

Chinese orders for corn and soybeans have increased since mid-July, with Beijing buying just over 3 million tons of American oilseeds between July 14 and Aug. 7, according to US Department of Agriculture data.

At the end of July, the United States reported the largest-ever daily order by China for its corn, of 1.9 million tons.

The announcements were a relief to US farmers, who are expecting a bumper crop this year and need to find buyers to take it.

They also came at a time of high political tension between the two countries, after the Trump administration authorized sanctions against several Hong Kong leaders over the rights crackdown in the city, and restrictions on Chinese apps WeChat and TikTok.

The Chinese “realize we’re not being the best of buddies right now, but they need the products and they’re gonna take as much as they need,” said Jack Scoville, agricultural market analyst for Price Futures Group.

It’s possible that Beijing will change its orders from buying this year’s harvest to next year’s.

But analysts warn that any orders could be called off before the ships carrying them leave port.

Brazil and Argentina, two of the world’s largest soybean and corn producers, are starting their harvests next spring, said Brian Hoops, president of the brokerage firm Midwest Market Solutions.

China “could cancel all these purchases they made in July and buy at much cheaper prices if that’s available to them,” Hoops said.

The trade deal dubbed “phase one” and signed in January has managed to survive both the tensions and the sharp global economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which has badly hit international trade.

US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer in June said China would follow through on its commitments, while Washington would also pursue a “phase two” trade deal that “will focus on issues of overcapacity, subsidization, disciplines on China’s state-owned enterprises, and cyber theft.”

Bown said any success in getting China to buy not just farm but also energy and manufactured goods, would aid Trump in his reelection campaign.