'Extremely sensitive': Another NZ government-backed business linked to blacklisted Chinese company

Stuff Circuit's documentary Deleted exposes New Zealand business and political links to a Chinese company involved in human rights violations against Uyghurs and investigates the extrajudicial imprisonment of the brother of a Uyghur New Zealander.

Government links have been revealed to a third New Zealand entity financially involved with a Chinese company blacklisted for its role in the human rights abuses of Uyghurs.

LearnCoach is the latest Kiwi company to come under the spotlight of Stuff Circuit’s investigation into New Zealand business and political links to the Chinese tech giant iFlytek.

LearnCoach was launched in 2012 as a platform for online schooling to help struggling students. The company partnered with iFlytek in April 2020 in a “strategic cooperation” which would see iFlytek’s technology applied to “online learning and testing platforms, as well as courses, exams and teacher-student services”.

Concerns about iFlytek’s role in the human rights abuses of Uyghurs have been raised publicly since 2017, when Human Rights Watch (HRW) used official Chinese government reports and documents to prove iFlytek’s collaboration with security agencies to collect voice samples from Uyghurs.

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In 2019, the US government put iFlytek on a trade blacklist.

In September 2020, LearnCoach received $4.5m from iFlytek and business incubator The Icehouse, which is financially backed by government agency Callaghan Innovation.

Three months later, in December 2020, the government invested in LearnCoach through the Aspire NZ Seed Fund.

It’s a small stake – 2.2 per cent – but associate professor of China studies Timothy Grose told Stuff Circuit, “It's not about the quantity of the partnership or the quantity of the shareholding but that the shareholding exists at all.”

Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China, are subjected to oppressive surveillance. As well as ever-present cameras, they're required to give up biometric data including voiceprints, using technology made by iFlytek.
Lawrence Smith/Stuff Circuit/Stuff
Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China, are subjected to oppressive surveillance. As well as ever-present cameras, they're required to give up biometric data including voiceprints, using technology made by iFlytek.

LearnCoach co-founder and CEO David Cameron at first refused to respond to questions, but then through a PR agency sent a statement saying: “We were not aware of these allegations made against iFlytek at the time of receiving funding from them, and we’re taking these claims very seriously.”

The Stuff Circuit investigation, Deleted, had already exposed government links to iFlytek through its 3.5 per cent shareholding in Auckland robotics company Rocos Global. The stake is also via the Aspire NZ Seed Fund, which invests $20 million dollars a year in tech start-ups.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson, one of two shareholding ministers responsible for Aspire, is seeking answers on the investments. “The question I will be asking is: what policies do you have in this area?”

The revelations are embarrassing for a government that says it’s taken a strong stance on the treatment of Uyghurs.

International observers of China’s persecution say the New Zealand government should be reviewing its shareholdings in companies doing business with iFlytek.

“I think the government probably should assess the optics of tacitly supporting a collaboration like that,” says Kelsey Munro, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Kelsey Munro, a senior analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, documents human rights violations in Xinjiang, China.
Stuff
Kelsey Munro, a senior analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, documents human rights violations in Xinjiang, China.

Grose, from the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana, says the government could not separate itself from the link to iFlytek – “a company doing very dangerous and destructive things”.

LearnCoach says it helps over 150,000 students every year and is promoting a new app to “Enhance your Chinese learning with AI”. The app is powered by artificial intelligence developed by iFlytek. David Cameron told China Daily the app is used by 16,000 New Zealanders.

In his statement to Stuff Circuit, Cameron said: “All international relationships managed by LearnCoach adhere to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) supplier code of conduct and are in accordance with applicable laws, regulations and ethical standards.

“As I’m sure you can understand this is an extremely sensitive issue, and we are investigating internally on these claims and cannot make any further comment on the matter.”

During the Deleted investigation, Rocos ended its partnership with iFlytek.

Icehouse Ventures, the investment arm of The Icehouse, is investigating its own partnership with iFlytek.

It had no comment on its investment in LearnCoach or what proportion of the $4.5m came from each party.

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