A pair of US legislators is seeking to extend the operational and PR difficulties of drone giant DJI in the US with a letter to the Commerce Department in which they insist the company be kept on the restricted Entity List for a range of violations – including complicity in human rights abuses.
Bipartisan duo target DJI drones for extended Entity List status
The letter was released on Monday by Democratic Representative Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and her Republican peer Gus Bilirakis of Florida. In it, the duo uses remarkably pointed terms to condemn alleged DJI complicity with Chinese government surveillance and law enforcement excesses. As part of that, they claim the company’s “drones may have been used to perpetuate human rights abuses.” They also urge the Commerce Department to investigate DJI’s purportedly unfair US “drone pricing which has eroded the domestic manufacturing base.”
As a result, the letter argues, the Commerce Department must reject any notions of revising or removing DJI from the Entity List, which bans the transfer of technology from the US to China. DJI was placed on watch following accusations its drones had been used in China’s persecution of Muslim Uighur minority in Xinjiang province. The full genesis of those accusations and DJI’s refutations are detailed in this post by DroneDJ editor-in-chief Scott Simmie.
The legislators say the company itself acknowledge its partnership with the Chinese government in a post on “the DJI website (that) outlined a deal for ‘strategic cooperation’ to provide police drones to the public security bureau of Xinjiang.” It said the information vanished amid increased media reporting in 2020 of rights violations against Uighurs.
The letter also appears to link DJI craft to notorious 2019 “drone footage of men shackled and blindfolded at a train station in Xinjiang.” That, they say, raises concerns that “DJI drones may have been used to perpetuate human rights abuses and with attempts to cover up their potential involvement.”
There’s little doubt that Beijing has and continues persecuting Uighurs. The central government has also developed the habit of roping private Chinese companies into partnerships that some might have otherwise preferred to avoid. Whether that is the case with DJI is still a matter of heated debate.
Protectionist objectives compatible with human rights values
But in addition to its stated defense of human rights, the letter also carries a strong whiff of garden variety protectionism in seeking to use DJI’s politically rooted troubles to undermine its market dominance. In doing so, the missive echoes earlier accusations from US drone sector players and lobbyists charging DJI of price dumping that undercuts American competitors.
“Reports indicate that DJI dropped its prices for consumer drones by as much as 70% in 2015,” the letter states. “In 2020, DJI had 77% of the American consumer drone market… Its next closest rival had less than 4% of the market. DJI was able to attain its monopoly through extremely low pricing.”
Its charges also contains what some observers may feel is a revealing bridge-too-far.
“Unfortunately, consumers looking for alternatives to buying DJI products have few options.”
That, of course, is simply not so. The statement also glosses over the hard reality US drone shoppers know too well: DJI drones aren’t exactly bargain basement cheap.
There are many less expensive (some considerably) options out there to choose from. Certainly, those cheaper models are unlikely to match DJI craft and tech capacities, but production/quality/price balances are something all companies in every sector must establish while calibrating profit targets and volume objectives.
US competitors like Skydio, meanwhile, have used the period of turbulence DJI has endured to develop exceptionally good drones whose tech and prices rival those of the Chinese giant. Despite that, its efforts to grab US market share from DJI has been limited amid consumer habits that take time to change. Which, indeed, may be what’s at least partially motivating the legislators’ letter. Increasing negative PR surrounding DJI may be one means of influencing consumers and businesses thinking about who they buy their drones from – and why.
Of course, it’s in the general interest to continue scrutinizing Chinese rights abuses, and punishing all actors involved in those. But defending those human values doesn’t preclude advancing national preference and protectionist objectives at the same time.
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