The company specialises in live translation, voice matching and image recognition services and is run by Liu Qingfeng, a former delegate to the Chinese Communist Party’s National People’s Congress. In China it has moved into biometric technology and artificial intelligence to help the government track its citizens.
The iFlytek deal was hosted six months before the company was placed on a US black list, but two years after Human Rights Watch first started raising concerns about the company working with police in China to develop a national voice biometric database.
China’s Victorian consul-general Zhou Long, a former official with China’s Ministry of Cyber Affairs, directly linked the agreement to Victoria’s Belt and Road deal and said he hoped he could help facilitate the business’ expansion in Australia.
“Victoria is the first local government in Australia to sign the Belt and Road co-operation memorandum with the Chinese government. It has a good tradition and a good atmosphere for exchanges and co-operation with China,” he said in May last year.
“It is hoped that iFlytek will take the market demand, co-operate with all sectors of the local society, and communicate with more local enterprises. The consulate is willing to provide comprehensive guidance and services for this purpose.”
Mr Yang joined Mr Andrews’ office as his multicultural adviser while he was in opposition and is widely regarded as having driven the Victorian Premier’s introduction to Beijing. The former court translator left after the 2014 election and before the Belt and Road deal was signed in 2018 against the advice of the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Mr Yang, who has long held an interest in translation services, signed the iFlytek deal through his property development company Modun. Sources close to the deal said it had yet to start commercial operations in Australia and it was signed before the Victorian parties were made aware of the company’s links to suppressing Uighurs in Xinjiang or concerns from the US state department. Invest Victoria, the Victorian government’s foreign investment arm, also had a meeting with iFlytek at their premises on their visit to Australia last year in May.
The Premier’s office did not provide comment on Parliament hosting the company, but Invest Victoria said it is standard practice to give international businesses meeting spaces when they are in Melbourne but do not have office space.
A spokesman for Invest Victoria said it “regularly meets with international businesses in its role of driving investment and jobs to Victoria”.
iFlytek is part owned by state telecommunications firm China Mobile and works with China’s Ministry of Public Security to voice track criminals.
The company, the highest valued software business on the Shenzhen stock exchange, was placed on the US trade blacklist in October last year. In its filing the US Department of Commerce accused iFlytek and seven other companies of being implicated in human rights violations in the implementation of China’s “campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, and high-technology surveillance against Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups”.
The US action restricts its access to hi-tech components like semiconductors and software as the company looks to expand into image and voice recognition systems that allow voice control of cars and teachers to broadcast in multiple languages simultaneously.
The same technology is being used to compile a voice database of Chinese citizens. The database is legal according to Chinese regulations, where surveillance and security are widely accepted in the community. iFlytek did not respond to requests for comment.
On June 12 it established a smart community police station in Huaibei City to build a “community security prevention and control network” with artificial intelligence technology. The network will see 55 high-definition infrared cameras and face recognition systems and vehicle licence plate recognition installed in the city north-west of Shanghai.
Mr Liu, the iFlytek founder, said in 2018 the number of Chinese citizens the technology was able to capture was to the company’s advantage and would allow artificial intelligence in China to grow at a faster rate than its competitors in the US and Europe.
He pushed back against US-China trade tensions in 2018. “Without cooperation between China and the US and other countries, it is impossible to build a beautiful world together,” he said.
Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said Australian governments and companies should be wary of promoting iFlytek considering its role in suppressing Uighurs in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China. The technology has been used to control and monitor the movements of the Muslim-minority, which the Chinese government has blamed for terrorist attacks and attempted to assimilate into the broader population through “vocational education camps”.
She said there was also a serious risk the data it was collecting in Australia would be misused and handed over to the Chinese government.
“These AI companies are required to share information with the Chinese government by law,” she said.
Danielle Cave, deputy director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre, said given the national security, censorship and human rights concerns, it was “concerning to see a company like iFlytek recently enter the Australian market”.
“Thanks to human rights organisations, research institutes and media there is plenty of information out there to inform government, businesses and universities as they make decisions about which groups to partner with,” she said.
“This also means excuses are increasingly falling on deaf ears when Australian organisations are forced to explain how they ended up problematic partnerships with, for example, companies accused of censoring speech or of human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
“It is vital that Australia continue to progress towards Magnitsky-style human rights legislation and that the public ask questions about the types of organisations Australian businesses, councils and especially government bodies are collaborating with.”
Ms Cave said iFlytek was one of the Chinese government’s “artificial intelligence champions”, meaning the company has been identified as possessing “core technologies”, and selected to spearhead AI development in China with the aim of overtaking the US in AI by 2030.
Eryk Bagshaw is the China correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Due to travel restrictions, he is currently based in Canberra.
Anthony is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Nick McKenzie is an investigative reporter for The Age. He’s won eight Walkley awards and covers politics, business, foreign affairs and defence, human rights issues, the criminal justice system and social affairs.