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Three years after the US blacklisted both Hikvision and Dahua, pressure on the UK to take a deeper look at the Chinese camera makers is rising. Illustration: Perry Tse

Eye of the beholder: Will security and human-rights concerns get Chinese camera makers Hikvision and Dahua banned in the UK?

  • A growing chorus is calling for a ban on the companies’ equipment for its purported use in surveillance in Xinjiang
  • A new public-procurement bill could pave the way for a ban on government purchases

Much like China, surveillance cameras are a way of life in public spaces in Britain.

Widely found in schools, community centres and prisons, as well as on public transit, they act as silent deterrents and as tools for authorities looking to prevent or investigate illicit activity from minor theft to acts of terrorism.

London itself is famously one of the most surveilled cities in the world, with 73 closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras for every 1,000 people living in the British capital. Only Taiyuan in Shanxi Province in northern China and Wuxi in Jiangsu Province in eastern China have more cameras per capita, according to an analysis by security researcher Comparitech.
However, tensions are rising over the growing dominance in Britain of two of the world’s biggest manufacturers of internet-protocol cameras – Hangzhou Hikvision Digital Technology and Zhejiang Dahua Technology – and their purported involvement in China’s surveillance of ethnic Uygurs in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region in northwest China.


US blacklists 28 Chinese entities over Xinjiang

US blacklists 28 Chinese entities over Xinjiang

“We shouldn’t be using companies that are complicit in genocide. That should not be allowable at all,” said Alicia Kearns, co-chair of the China Research Group and a Conservative member of Parliament. “On the other side of the coin, we are allowing China to build a tech totalitarian state and they’re going to build it on the backs of data from the people of Britain and other countries … We are essentially sending the facial and gait data of our children and people across the UK back to China and the [Chinese Communist Party] CCP.”

The pressure on the UK to take a deeper look at the Chinese camera makers comes nearly three years after the US blacklisted both Hikvision and Dahua.

The US added both companies to its so-called Entity List alongside a group of companies and public-security bureaus in China, with American officials saying they had been implicated in “human-rights violations and abuses” in Xinjiang.


The US, which had previously barred federal agencies from buying Hikvision and Dahua equipment over national-security concerns, is now reportedly considering additional harsh sanctions against Hikvison.

The British government has been outspoken about abuses in Xinjiang, but has been more reluctant to issue an outright ban on equipment from the Chinese camera makers.

However, a long-anticipated public-procurement bill making its way through Parliament, as well as a growing chorus of objections on human-rights and security grounds, could pave the way for a bar on new purchases, if not the removal of existing cameras.

If approved later this summer, the procurement bill would give the UK greater powers to block companies tied to human-rights abuses from bidding for local and national government contracts.


“Mass-surveillance systems have always been the handmaid of fascism,” David Alton, a cross-bench peer, said in the House of Lords last week. “The government should come forward with a timetable to remove these cameras and technology from the public-sector supply chain, and campaign to encourage and support businesses in the private sector to do the same. We simply cannot allow the tools of genocide to continue to be used so readily in our daily lives.”

Hikvision video surveillance cameras in use in Italy in 2018. Photo: Shutterstock

However, some critics have said the procurement bill does not go far enough.

“The government has promised that its new procurement bill will deal with this, but we’ve read it – it doesn’t,” Silkie Carlo, director of UK civil liberties group Big Brother Watch, said in a tweet. “The UK risks complicity in some of the most serious crimes against humanity in our lifetime.”

The procurement bill is among a series of measures introduced in Parliament this year to counter foreign influence in the UK, including legislation to require reporting of foreign donations to and partnerships with British universities exceeding £50,000 (US$63,000) and to require mandatory registration of agents acting on behalf of foreign governments.

The bill comes as the UK government, which for years has encouraged investment by Chinese firms, takes a harder stance on China and its growing influence around the globe.

Britain has banned equipment made by Huawei Technologies from its 5G telecommunications network by 2027 and has announced reviews of several acquisitions of UK companies by Chinese firms in recent weeks – both on national-security grounds.

At the same time, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss warned in a speech in April that China must “play by the rules” on human rights and other international standards, or face consequences such as sanctions.

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss arrives for an informal meeting of Nato foreign ministers in Berlin in May. Photo: DPA
“China needs trade with the G7,” she said in her speech. “We represent half of the global economy. And we have choices. We have shown with Russia the kind of choices we’re prepared to make when international rules are violated. And we’ve shown that we’re prepared to prioritise security and respect for sovereignty over short-term economic gain.”

Ending Britain’s love affair with Chinese-made surveillance cameras may be harder than it looks, given how prevalent Hikvision and Dahua cameras are in the public and private sectors in Britain, particularly at the local level.

An estimated 1.3 million Hikvision cameras are in operation in the UK, or just over one camera per 50 persons in the nation.

Two-thirds of borough councils in London and the UK’s 20 largest cities used technology manufactured by either Hikvision or Dahua for their public surveillance in 2020, according to a report by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Similar research by found that the council for the London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham owned more than 1,700 Hikvision cameras at the end of 2020. The borough is home to three English football clubs – Chelsea, Fulham and Queens Park Rangers – and some of the most expensive residential properties in the country.
SCMP Graphics

The police force that protects Britain’s nuclear power plants uses Hikvision cameras in its administrative buildings.

Hikvision devices also serve as electronic eyes for the UK Health Security Agency, which researches vaccines and deadly diseases, Bloomberg reported last month, citing people familiar with the matter.

Most infamously, a Hikvision camera reportedly caught then Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock in a romantic embrace with an aide last summer, prompting his resignation when images of the violation of government social-distancing rules appeared in a tabloid newspaper.

The Health Department has reportedly banned new purchases of Hikvision equipment, but has not forced the removal of existing cameras.

When approached by the Post, UK officials declined to discuss which equipment is used in government buildings, citing national security.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street in May. Photo: Agence France-Presse

“We take the security of our citizens, systems and establishments very seriously and have a range of measures in place to scrutinise the integrity of our arrangements,” a government spokesperson said.

Hikvision said it has cooperated with prior government inquiries in Britain, and its business model in the UK is consistent with the security industry, in that it sells through distribution partners, rather than directly to end users like local councils.

“Hikvision takes all reports regarding ethical and security concerns very seriously and recognises our responsibility for protecting people and property,” a Hikvision spokesperson said. “The company has been engaging with governments globally to clarify misunderstandings about the company [and] our business, and address their concerns.”

Dahua said that it strongly supports procurement reform and that it fully complies with applicable laws and rules where it operates.

“With regard to the groundless human-rights allegations, we reaffirm what we have consistently and publicly stated: we have not been involved directly or indirectly in promoting human-rights violations in any country in which we operate,” a Dahua spokesperson said. “We are proud of the fact that our products are contributing to the safety and security of citizens of the UK and people around the world. We respectfully ask the Parliament to judge us on this substantive basis.”

The Foreign Affairs Select Committee first recommended last year that Hikvision and Dahua equipment not be allowed to operate in the UK because of human-rights abuses in Xinjiang. Hikvision called the claim that its cameras are used in internment camps in the region “ unsubstantiated and not underpinned by evidence”.
“The government should prohibit UK firms and public sector bodies from conducting business with, investing in, or entering into partnerships with such Chinese firms, to ensure that UK companies do not provide either blueprints or financing for further technology-enabled human-rights abuses,” the committee wrote in a July 2021 report.
In response, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government said it is committed to helping British businesses engage with China “in a way that reflects the UK’s values and takes account of national-security concerns”.

“Last year, we published guidance to help cutting-edge UK firms negotiate the ethical, legal and commercial questions they may encounter in China or when working with Chinese businesses, supporting safe and appropriate UK-China collaboration in the digital and technology space,” the government said in November.

In recent months, Fraser Sampson, the independent biometrics and surveillance camera commissioner, has called for a ban on Hikvision, saying the company has failed to answer his questions about its operations in Xinjiang, including acknowledging rights abuses are occurring in the region. He has posed similar questions to Dahua, but the company has yet to respond.
Sampson, who is not part of government but acts as an independent monitor of its surveillance-camera usage, wrote to the Cabinet Office in April to clarify the government’s policy on using Hikvision equipment. This followed a media report that the Health Department had banned further equipment purchases from Hikvision over “ethical concerns”.
A pedestrian passes the Houses of Parliament in October 2021. UK lawmakers are considering a new public procurement bill that would give the government greater powers to block companies tied to human rights abuses from bidding for contracts. Photo: Agence France-Presse

“It all comes back to accountability and governance,” Sampson told the Post. “If you cannot get the most basic information from your surveillance partners, you cannot assure all of your other stakeholders, including citizens, that you’ve done your due diligence.”

In his letter to the Cabinet Office, Sampson noted that modern surveillance equipment is built with maximum functionality, with the capability to be switched on remotely and with the ability to pick up sound or read license-plate numbers.

“The more surveillance that camera systems can do, the more important it will be to reassure people about what they are not doing, whether that is in our streets, our sports grounds or our schools,” he said in his letter. “This is increasingly difficult to detect technically and requires transparency and due diligence by all concerned in public-space surveillance activity.”
Sampson pulled out of an influential industry conference in Britain last month over Hikvision’s involvement as a prominent sponsor.

For its part, Hikvision has offered to sit down with Sampson, but only if he keeps the details of their conversation from the media or “anti-China” groups. Sampson has declined such preconditions, saying keeping the information private “makes no sense”.

However, Sampson may soon find himself out of a job as the government has proposed moving the functions of his office into the Information Commissioner’s Office.

The rise of China and its concerning record on human rights is going to require the government to have a “real hard conversation” with the British public when it comes to everything from solar panels to day-to-day products made in China, said Kearns, the Conservative MP.

“You can’t stand on your platform and say you believe in human rights,” she said. “You have to actually make meaningful change and adjustment to it.”