NZ business and political links to blacklisted Chinese company iFlytek

The New Zealand government is financially linked to a Chinese company whose technology is used in the Chinese governments persecution of Uyghurs.
The links come through government backing of at least two New Zealand entities which have partnered with the Chinese artificial intelligence giant iFlytek.

A Stuff Circuit investigation has found New Zealand entities formed partnerships with iFlytek in spite of concerns having been raised publicly since 2017 about iFlyteks role in human rights violations. iFlytek was placed on a trade blacklist by the US in October 2019.

Auckland robotics company Rocos Global partnered with iFlytek in March 2019 and publicly promoted the relationship, including an opportunity to showcase its work on the world stage by operating robots at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

* Disgust at Chinas state-sponsored Uyghurface in Wellington
* The Detail: NZ treading a trade tightrope with China
* Massey University silent on links to alleged human rights abuses in China

The government has a shareholding in Rocos through the Aspire NZ Seed Fund, which invests $20 million a year in tech start-ups.

The shareholding is small at 3.5 per cent. But associate professor in China Studies Timothy Grose told Stuff Circuit, I don't think you can separate any so-called positive relationships with a company that's doing very dangerous and destructive things. It's not about the quantity of the partnership, or the quantity of the shareholding, but that the shareholding exists at all.

Responding to questions from Stuff Circuit, Aspire NZ Seed Fund said it was going through its files on all of this.

Rocos Global and iFlytek sign their partnership deal in 2019.

The New Zealand government is also linked to iFlytek through Icehouse Ventures, the investment arm of business incubator The Icehouse.

Icehouse Ventures is the majority shareholder in Rocos, and The Icehouse also has its own direct partnership with iFlytek, signed in March 2019. The government, through its business innovation agency Callaghan Innovation, funds Icehouse Ventures $700,000 a year.

Callaghan said, We were made aware of the relationship and that Icehouse has been working to understand the situation.

Asked when it was made aware of the relationship, it did not respond.

Lawrence Smith/Stuff Circuit/Stuff
Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China, are subjected to an oppressive surveillance regime.

IFlytek is the leading supplier of voiceprint technology used to take voice samples from Uyghurs, the minority Muslim population in Xinjiang, China, where a brutal regime of oppression is in place.

For the documentary Deleted, Stuff Circuit was easily able to find information about iFlytek online.

Associate professor Grose, who lectures at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in the US, says it took him only one evening to find out iFlyteks reach in Xinjiang.

I dont think ignorance can be used as an excuse any more, especially since journalists and scholars and activists have been raising awareness about this issue for nearly three years now, said Grose.

And so I think that if any foreign company, more especially any foreign government, wants to do business with a company in China, especially a company that has ties to the government it needs to do its research before agreeing to any terms of a contract.

Josiah Duncan
Associate professor Timothy Grose says ignorance about iFlytek's role in human rights abuses of Uhgurs is no excuse.

Both Rocos and Icehouse Ventures refused to be interviewed by Stuff Circuit, but during the course of the Deleted investigation, Rocos apparently ended its partnership with iFlytek, saying in a statement, Rocos is no longer involved in any projects with iFlytek. And there are no future projects planned.

The board of Icehouse Ventures has requested an investigation into the partnership with iFlytek.

However, questions remain over what the government knew or should have known about its financial ties to iFlytek.

Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta declined to be interviewed by Stuff Circuit.

  • Deleted was made with the support of NZ On Air.


Our Partner