Speech recognition firm iFlytek has applied for an exemption to a US trade ban in order to buy medical supplies amid a national campaign to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Why it matters: More than 900 people have died as a result of the infection, which was first reported in Wuhan, the capital of China’s central Hubei province, in late December. Medical supply shortages have been reported across the country, with hospitals in several cities requesting donations from the public.

  • The government has locked down 15 cities in Hubei, effectively quarantining more than 50 million people. Similar measures are now being taken in Zhejiang province, on China’s eastern seaboard.
  • The US placed iFlytek along with several other Chinese technology companies and government agencies on the so-called US Entity List in October, effectively banning them from doing business with American companies.

Chinese tech firms brace for impact from coronavirus

Details: iFlytek seeks to make “charitable donations” of medical supplies that it is currently restricted from buying in the US as a result of the ban, the company said in a filing to the Shenzhen Stock Exchange on Monday.

  • iFlytek has commissioned a US-based law firm to submit a formal request to the US Department of Commerce “in the spirit of humanitarianism and international cooperation,” the company said.
  • The outbreak of the coronavirus has accelerated since mid-January, putting immense pressure on the country’s healthcare system. Major hospitals in cities including Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Shenzhen have appealed to the public for donations of respirator masks and other supplies for healthcare workers.
  • iFlytek has switched to a non-US supply chain following the ban, the company said, instead using domestic suppliers.

Context: China has mobilized its tech sector in an effort to curb the spread of the infection. Dozens of companies including Meituan, Alibaba, and Tencent have made donations in excess of RMB 3 billion ($429 million), while also deploying their technologies in applications ranging from diagnosis to tracking the spread of the disease.

  • Meanwhile, e-commerce platform JD.com vowed to ensure adequate supply of face masks to the public and to place curbs on consumer stockpiling.
  • The US blacklisted iFlytek and several prominent Chinese artificial intelligence companies including Sensetime and Megvii over their alleged complicity in Beijing’s human rights violations in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

Christopher Udemans is a Shanghai-based technology reporter. He covers Chinese artificial intelligence, mobility, and cybersecurity. You can contact him at chrisudemans [at] technode [dot] com. More by Chris Udemans

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