Mark Kelly, Democratic candidate for Senate in Arizona, is side stepping, if not completely ignoring questions raised over investments into his space exploration company by Chinese company Tencent LTD.
Mark Kelly is also the husband of former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who stepped down from her job as a US Congresswoman after she sustained a permanent brain injury when she was shot in the head in a 2011 assassination attempt outside of a grocery store in Tucson, Arizona during one of her campaign events.
Co-founder and CEO of Tucson, Arizona-based World View Enterprises, Jane Poynter announced in 2014 in Beijing that World View Enterprises had received an undisclosed investment by Chinese internet company Tencent. Just two years later, World View Enterprises announced they’d received a $15 billion investment round lead by Canaan Partners from Moment Ventures, Norwest Venture Partners, Base Ventures, and Tencent.
Tencent is an internet service portal with strong ties to the CCP offering mobile, telecom, internet, and online advertising services, with a focus on online gaming and messaging services – specifically WeChat messaging service, which is owned by Tencent.
Last fall, NPR reported millions of conversations using the WeChat app by both users inside and outside of China were being “flagged, collected and stored in a database connected to public security agencies in China” on a daily basis.
Internet watch dog group Citizen Lab, based out of Ontario, Canada, told NPR Tencent has developed an “extraordinarily advanced censorship algorithm” that automatically identifies and blocks certain words within the messages themselves, and some articles online. When someone attempts to send a message containing these words, the message is simply never delivered to the recipient.
Lawyer and citizen journalist Chen Qiushi also used WeChat for around two weeks, reporting on COVID-19 and known for his reporting of Hong Kong protests in 2019 before going missing February 6th, 2020. Qiushi’s whereabouts are still unknown.
In April 2019, GDI Foundation‘s Victor Gevers found a WeChat database holding over 3.7 million unique messages.
“What we have learned from 1.081.231.257 “captured” WeChat dialogues ( 3,784,309,399 messages) made on the 18 March 2019 is that were automatically selected for “reviewing” based on a “keyword” trigger. Not all the dialogues were in Chinese or only had GPS coordinates in China,” Gevers tweeted using the Twitter account @0xDUDE.
Gevers noted that not all of the messages being stored were from locations inside China: “From 3.784.309.399 messages, 3.698.798.784 were written in Chinese. 59.378.236 in English and 26.132.379 in another language. 98% of the Chinese messages had a GPS location in China. 68% of the English messages were sent in China. More than 19 million were sent from outside”
Tencent owned WeChat has enhanced it’s surveillance and censorship since January 1st, but the messaging app began censoring 500 COVID-19 related terms in the last week of December 2019, according to a March 2020 study by Citizen Lab. The potential effects this may have had on Chinese doctors and healthcare workers attempting to share information about the virus are catastrophic. We know that 8 doctors were accused of “spreading rumors” on the WeChat app and subsequently arrested, with one of the very first whistleblowers, Dr. Li Wenliang dying in February from complications associated with contracting the virus.
On April 30th, 2020, Senators Josh Hawley (R-Mo) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) introduced “Countering Chinese Attempts at Snooping” or CCAS Act, legislation that would ban any U.S. from using Tencent, ZTE, Huawei, and other CCP-backed platforms. The CCAS Act requires the Secretary of State to create a list of technology companies in China that “enable the CCP to conduct espionage based on a list of criteria, including enabling surveillance and granting access to networks,” according to a press release on Senator Ted Cruz’s website.
It seems this is a bipartisan concern, after numerous complaints from U.S. government officials, the U.N. not only backed out of their deal with Tencent that would have provided different telecommunication services for the U.N.’s 75th anniversary, but the U.N. director of Human Rights Watch refereed to Tencent as “an enabler of Chinese government oppression,” as Real Clear Politics reported.
In addition to investments made to World View Enterprises, Tencent has also donated $5,000 to Kelly’s Senate campaign by way of the Chinese tech company’s CEO David Wallerstein.
When Real Clear Politics tried to question Kelly about investments made to World View Enterprises by Tencent, Kelly’s campaign spokesman Jacob Peters completely dodged the question telling Real Clear Politics, “Mark is a U.S. Navy combat veteran who served in the Pacific and has been clear that China is an adversary and threat to American interests. Mark’s experience as a pilot and astronaut enabled him to help found World View in Tucson, which has worked with the Department of Defense and NASA among others while creating jobs and generating millions in economic impact.”
Peters referred Real Clear Politics to a spokeswoman who told RCP Tencent’s investments in World View Enterprises came from “an early investor,” which now maintains “less than 5% in common stock,” Tencent subsidiary Mount McKinley.
“They do not have a seat on the board, means of control, or any access to inside information about the company or its technology,” she told RCP.
The spokeswoman then directed RCP to follow up with Mount McKinley regarding the Tencent investments in the company.
RCP, in an attempt to reach Mount McKinley discovered it shares the same physical address as Tencent, in China.
Joanna Rodriguez, spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee said of Kelly’s ties to China, “His company spent years flaunting its ties to Chinese investors while reaping the benefits of taxpayer funding. Now when the national security threats of these types of investments are being realized, Kelly remains silent. Arizonans can’t trust him to deliver on promises or keep America safe from communist influence.”
WORLD VIEW ENTERPRISES
World View Enterprises, a company co-founded by Kelly, was originally created to give humans the amazing experience of near-space tours called Voyager. Think of it as taking a 5-6 hour tour, by way of stratospheric aerial balloons made to reach heights of 100,000 ft. (nearly 20 miles).
However, World View Enterprises quickly shifted it’s focus from the Voyager tours to government contracts, with the company’s other co-founder and CTO Taber McCallum telling Tech Crunch in 2017 that they had been approached by NASA to fly satellites and unmanned payloads (Stratollite) and now aids in military reconnaissance missions. In addition to $45 million from NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, the company has also won at least $51.8 million in government contracts, including contracts with the DOD, Arizona State University, Northrup Grumman, and Harvard. Records show NASA has paid World View over $3.2 million in the last four years alone.
“We were working on the Alan Eustace flights and we started getting a bunch of incoming requests to fly payloads and satellites,” he said. “We thought the market must’ve been already saturated, but the calls kept coming in and we got the NASA contract.”
World View Enterprises’s website states they offer the “ability to provide persistent, high resolution day/night imagery is of the greatest value to the government customer. Additionally, government customers have the option to provide World View with a government owned payload, communications link, and/or desired user interface.”
“China has imported two things to Arizona: coronavirus and support for Mark Kelly,” said a spokesperson for political action committee Defend Arizona, who is expected to show strong support for incumbent Sen. Martha McSally, (R-Ariz).
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