Student conference cancels speakers with company ties to Uyghur persecution in China

A student-organized conference cancelled speaking appearances by two executives whose respective companies have been accused of involvement in human rights violations against the Chinese Uyghur population.

Jimmy Zhao of SenseTime and Lina Chen of Sina Weibo were scheduled to speak on November 16 and 17 at the 2019 UBC China Forum, a business conference aimed at promoting dialogue between Canadian students and Chinese businesses. It is hosted by the UBC BizChina Club.

Following backlash from Canadian Uyghur groups, the speakers’ names were quietly removed from the conference website.

“They should never have been invited in the first place,” said member of the Vancouver Uyghur Association Shalina Nurly in an interview with The Ubyssey. “They play a major role in the cultural genocide that’s happening in Northwestern China on Uyghur Muslims and on other Muslim minorities.”

SenseTime is a Chinese artificial intelligence software-as-a-service company whose facial recognition technologies have reportedly been used by the Chinese government to racially profile the Uyghur peoples, a Muslim minority group of China’s Northwestern province Xinjiang.

In October, the US Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security announced that SenseTime — along with 27 other entities — had been blacklisted as they had been identified to be acting contrary to the foreign policy interests of the US.

Sina Weibo is a Chinese social media platform that sensors topics deemed to be politically sensitive, including content about the network of detention centres in Xinjiang reported to hold upwards of one million ethnic Uyghurs.

Zhao and Chen were both scheduled to speak until the evening of November 15, when BizChina posted on the forum’s website and event page that they would no longer be appearing at the event.

“Due to extenuating circumstances, our speakers from SenseTime and Sina Weibo will no longer be participating in the 2019 UBC China Forum. We apologize for the short notice and wish everyone will have a pleasant weekend at our event,” the post reads.

The club did not state explicitly why Zhao and Chen were removed from the conference. When asked to comment, BizChina directed The Ubyssey to the original post on their event page.

In a statement to The Ubyssey, SenseTime called the controversy a misunderstanding and defended the contributions of their work.

“SenseTime decided not to participate in this event to avoid further misunderstanding,” wrote a SenseTime spokesperson. “We see technology as being a global force for good, and therefore we develop AI technologies in education, healthcare, transportation, safety and entertainment, among many others, that can make a positive contribution to the lives of people around the world.”

Sina Weibo did not respond to requests for comment.

While the event was endorsed by Santa Ono, UBC declined to comment on the speakers’ cancellation, saying BizChina was responsible for the event.

“The AMS is glad to see that BizChina listened to the community's feedback and made a swift decision regarding the conference speakers,” said AMS President Chris Hakim in an emailed statement to The Ubyssey.

“We hope to continue seeing student groups on campus hold themselves accountable to the student body in order to better the student experience at UBC.”