Intel, Nvidia Face Questions from Lawmakers on Sale of Supercomputing Chips to China


The legislators’ probe follows reports that U.S.-built technology is underpinning the mass surveillance of Uighurs and others.

Advanced computer chips built and sold by U.S. tech giants Nvidia and Intel are reportedly being used to power a supercomputer that helps China’s security forces conduct mass surveillance on Uighurs and other minorities—and on the heels of these fresh allegations, two lawmakers want to know more.

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., recently penned letters pressing both companies’ chief executives to provide deeper details on their sales of exports that might be contributing to human rights harms in China’s remote Xinjiang region, and beyond.

“Over the last three years, evidence has mounted that mass surveillance—made possible by combining computing power and big data with traditional surveillance methods—has enabled the [People’s Republic of China’s] mass internment and forced labor policies that affect millions of Uyghurs and other Turkic or Muslim minorities,” the lawmakers wrote. Citing reports from the New York Times and other publications, McGovern and Rubio added, “Some of the entities named by the U.S. government for their role in these human rights abuses, including Sugon, are clients of your company.”

More than 1 million Uighurs and other members of ethnic minority groups have been detained by China’s authorities in internment camps or converted detention facilities, according to a 2019 report from the State Department. It states that individuals being held are subjected to torture, psychological and physical abuse, forced labor, and “prolonged detention without trial because of their religion and ethnicity,” among other abuses. In late November, New York Times reported that computer chips produced by both Intel and Nvidia are helping to power systems inside the Urumqi Cloud Computing Center, which is leveraged by Chinese security forces in surveillance efforts aimed at spotting behaviors that do not align with ideals of the Chinese Communist Party—particularly in China’s vast western region of Xinjiang, where “predictive policing” campaigns are unfolding against minority groups. 

The U.S.-made chips have been used by the Chinese computing complex since 2016, and they likely helped the center land a spot on the list of the world’s fastest supercomputers last year. 

At the heart of the controversy is Sugon—the companies’ client, which lawmakers call “a high-performance computing manufacturer with close ties to the PRC military.” Since 2019, the Commerce Department placed numerous PRC-domiciled companies and government entities—including Sugon, the legislators note—on the Bureau of Industry and Security’s Entity List, pointing to their complicity “in human rights violations and abuses committed in China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, forced labor and high-technology surveillance against Uyghurs,” and others in the region. New York Times noted that there’s no evidence the companies’ sales of their chips to Sugon, which predate the Trump order, actually broke any laws—but said both businesses are still selling chips to the firm.  

“What, if any, due diligence did your company perform prior to selling your products to the PRC entities in question to ensure that your products were not used in human rights abuses, and, in particular, the mass surveillance systems used to suppress Uyghurs and other PRC citizens?” Rubio and McGovern ask in their letters to Intel and Nvidia.

Among other questions, the lawmakers also press the executives to confirm the amount of revenue their companies and subsidiaries made over the last fiscal year from sales to PRC entities on the Entity List, and whether they were aware that their technology would underpin surveillance activities conducted by China’s security forces. 

The letters are almost identical, however, Nvidia’s includes a final, extra question. “Senior executives in Arm Holdings, a microprocessor design firm, have stated publicly that they established a joint venture in the PRC in 2018 to grow sales to end users in the PRC military and security services,” it reads. “Given these public statements, what steps is Nvidia taking to ensure that Arm’s sales and research partnerships in the PRC remain compliant with U.S. export administration regulations following its recent acquisition of Arm Holdings?”

A spokesperson from Nvidia declined Nextgov’s request for further information.

The company’s deal to acquire Arm is presently pending regulatory approval, and at this point, the two remain separate entities. Through the joint venture spotlighted by the legislators, Arm and the China-based HOPU innovation fund linked up two years ago to create Arm China. While HOPU oversees the majority of Arm China shares, Arm—along with its current parent company SoftBank Group—own the remaining 49% of Arm China, a spokesman from Arm told Nextgov Thursday. 

“Arm China continues to be the sole distributor of Arm IP in China and as a joint venture, it can operate as a Chinese company rather than as a foreign entity and accordingly have greater access to Chinese market opportunities,” the official said. 

They added that Arm and its subsidiaries “have and continue to be in compliance with all U.S. export control laws applicable to China and its joint venture, Arm China.”

An Intel spokesperson told Nextgov Wednesday that the company received the letter from Rubio and McGovern, but declined to confirm whether CEO Bob Swan intends to respond.

“Under our global human rights principles, Intel does not support or tolerate our products being used to violate human rights,” the spokesperson said. “Where we become aware of a concern that Intel products are being used by a business partner in connection with abuses of human rights, we will restrict or cease business with the third party until and unless we have high confidence that Intel’s products are not being used to violate human rights.”

The lawmakers did not set a deadline for responses to their queries.