World’s Largest Drone Maker Expands in US Amid Rights Abuse Allegations  

washington — Chinese drone maker DJI is expanding in the U.S. with its first flagship store in New York City amid allegations of links to human rights abuses and ties to China’s military.

DJI’s “first concept” North American store on New York’s Fifth Avenue welcomes customers into a futuristic, minimalist space to shop. The company describes itself on its website as “the world’s leader in civil drones and creative camera technology.”

“We continue to see growing consumer demand throughout North America as we expand our consumer product portfolio,” said Christina Zhang, senior director of corporate strategy at DJI.

Headquartered in Shenzhen, China, the company was founded in 2006. DJI, also known as Da Jiang Innovations, has become the world’s largest drone maker, having achieved global dominance in less than 20 years. The company now supplies 70% of the world’s consumer drones and nearly 80% of U.S. consumer drones.

Abuse allegations

On March 5, the day of DJI’s official store opening in New York, the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), a Washington research and advocacy group, released a report titled Surveillance Tech Series: DJI’s Links to Human Rights Abuses in East Turkistan.

The report accuses DJI of being involved in mass surveillance and rights violations against Uyghur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz and other Muslim communities in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which the group calls East Turkistan.

“DJI is directly involved in mass surveillance schemes in East Turkistan and has supplied public security agencies with tools to surveil and target Uyghurs, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz people,” the UHRP report said. “Xinjiang public security departments entered into seven procurement orders with DJI that were worth nearly US$300,000 between 2019 and 2022.”

The report stated that DJI sells drones to Xinjiang’s paramilitary organization, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, which the U.S. government sanctioned because of its “connection with serious rights abuses against ethnic minorities” in Xinjiang.

“Other documents show tenders worth US$47,000 for DJI drones for the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps,” the UHRP report stated.

The report also said that a DJI drone captured footage of dozens of individuals, seemingly Uyghur prisoners, blindfolded and shackled at a train station in southern Xinjiang. The video, first released on YouTube in 2019, garnered widespread media attention.

“It’s unethical to support a company that knowingly engages in egregious rights violations,” Nuzigum Setiwaldi, the report’s author, told Voice of America.

The U.S. and several Western parliaments have accused China of genocide in Xinjiang, targeting Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim populations. The U.N. human rights office released a report saying the human rights violations in Xinjiang may amount to crimes against humanity. China criticized Western nations for spreading “lies” about human rights in Xinjiang and Tibet.

A spokesperson from DJI told VOA the company has not engaged in any activities, including sales distribution and product development, that violate or abuse human rights.

“Like other manufacturers, we do not have control over how our products are used as they are available off the shelf,” wrote a DJI spokesperson in an email response. “However, we have demonstrated – through years of investments in product safety and security initiatives – that our products are developed for peaceful and civilian use only.”

Chinese military company or not?

In 2022, The Washington Post reported that DJI obscured ties to Chinese government funding.

In the same year, the U.S. Department of Defense classified DJI as a “Chinese military company.” As of January, DJI remains on the list of such companies operating in the United States. The department said it maintains companies on the list to counter China’s Military-Civil Fusion strategy, which supports the modernization of the Chinese army.

Reuters reported that former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who ran the U.S. Justice Department from 2015 to 2017 and is now with the Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison law firm, wrote a letter to the Defense Department last July on behalf of DJI, urging the removal of her client from the Pentagon’s Chinese military companies list.

In her letter, Lynch cited the importance and urgency of such a move because of the wide use of and dependence on DJI products by a variety of U.S. stakeholders.

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) warned in January that Chinese-made drones posed “significant risk” to U.S. national security and critical infrastructure.

“[T]he PRC’s 2017 National Intelligence Law compels Chinese companies to cooperate with state intelligence services, including providing access to data collected within China and around the world,” CISA said in its cybersecurity guidance on Chinese manufactured drones or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

However, DJI’s spokesperson told VOA that DJI “is not a Chinese military company.”

According to DJI, the company remains one of the few drone companies that clearly “denounce and actively discourage” the use of drones in combat.

“We do not pursue business opportunities for combat use or operations. Our distributors, resellers and other business partners globally have also committed to following this policy when they sell and use our products,” DJI spokesperson said.

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