A Former Democrat Staffer Is Trying To Keep A Chinese Surveillance Company Off The Government’s Blacklist

FRED DUFOUR/AFP via Getty Images

Michael Ginsberg Congressional Correspondent
Font Size:

A former staffer to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada is lobbying to prevent a Chinese technology company from being sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act.

Andrew Willison, who worked for Reid from 1997-99 and 2015-2017 and the Senate Sergeant at Arms from 2007-10 and 2013-15, registered his lobbying firm under the Foreign Agents Registration Act as an agent of Hikvision USA, the Chinese company Hikvision’s U.S. subsidiary. Willison’s registration was first reported by the technology reporting site IPVM. Hikvision is currently sanctioned for providing surveillance technology used in Uyghur concentration camps, and it has previously hired former U.S. officials like retired Democratic California Sen. Barbara Boxer and Peter Kucik, a senior sanctions policy advisor in the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

In his FARA registration, Willison included documents detailing a public relations strategy to keep Hikvision off of the State Department’s Global Magnitsky Act sanctions list. Passed in 2016, the Global Magnitsky Act allows the president to sanction “foreign persons responsible for gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.”

In a memo to an attorney at Sidley Austin, which is also registered to lobby for Hikvision USA, Willison proposed a low visibility lobbying strategy. He argued that Hikvision and its lobbyists should not engage in a “media campaign beyond the initial response.” Instead, Willison would reach out to career employees in the Treasury and Commerce departments while avoiding “political appointees,” since they are “far more scared on China issues than career staff.”

“Former American officials are getting paid upwards of $50,000 a month to lobby the U.S. government on behalf of Chinese companies complicit in genocide. National security officials in Treasury and Commerce need to look past the familiar faces knocking on their door and realize who they’re representing: the Chinese Communist Party,” American Foreign Policy Council fellow Michael Sobolik told the Daily Caller.

Willison also argued that Hikvision should not engage in any “Hill activity whatsoever,” since Magnitsky “decisions are not made there and there is potential for unintended consequences.” Opposition to Chinese human rights abuses has been a bipartisan issue, with the 117th Congress passing the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act in December 2021. (RELATED: ‘Unacceptable Risk’: Biden Admin To Bar Chinese Telecom Giants From US Market)

The Magnitsky sanctions would prohibit all American companies and individuals from doing business with Hikvision, ending Hikvision USA. Hikvision began preparing for the sanctions shortly after the Financial Times reported in May that the Biden administration was considering such a move. The company is doing so by increasing inventory and decreasing exposure to the U.S. dollar, according to IPVM.

Although four entities are currently registered under FARA to lobby for Hikvision USA, the law does not actually require them to file, since many Chinese companies are nominally independent from the government and the Chinese Communist Party. Hikvision’s lobbyists are still required to submit lobbying disclosure forms by the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995. Six entities in total are currently registered to lobby for Hikvision under the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) or FARA.

Bipartisan legislation introduced in the Senate by Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton and in the House by Wisconsin Republican Mike Gallagher and California Democrat Ro Khanna would force all individuals lobbying for Chinese entities to register under FARA. The law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr and The Glover Park Group communications firm are both registered under LDA but not FARA.

“Any Chinese company important enough to hire lobbyists in DC is important enough to be co-opted by the CCP. It’s good to see the DOJ has recognized this reality when it comes to Hikvision, but this action alone is not enough. Congress needs to pass the bipartisan Chinese Communist Party Transparency Act to ensure everyone lobbying on behalf of a CCP-directed company is required to register under FARA and the enhanced scrutiny that comes with it,” Gallagher said in a statement to the Daily Caller.