China and the West are currently locked in a race to dominate the future of global telecommunications through so-called fifth generation or 5G technologies, which will not only accelerate everyone’s access to the Internet and data and networks, but also interconnect us all as never before.
Until a couple months ago, it looked as if Chinese IT giant Huawei, the world’s biggest telecom network-gear maker, had that race all but won. After signing nearly 50 agreements with other countries to either use or test Huawei equipment in their future 5G networks, Huawei was headed to the World Mobile Congress in Barcelona in March with an air of triumph.
Now there’s been a last-minute shift in mood that has put the focus right where it needs to be: on whether Huawei is actually Beijing’s high-tech Trojan horse for securing China’s control over the world’s telecommunications networks, with bad consequences for the future of freedom as well as democracy in the 21st century.
The first sign of the shift was the arrest of Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou in Canada in December. Although the charges against Meng were unrelated to 5G, the adverse publicity forced one of the Chinese company’s top Canadian executives, Scott Bradley, to step down. As it happened, Bradley was chair of the 5G Canada Council which would have facilitated Huawei’s penetration of the Canadian 5G market.
Then last week the U.S. Commerce Department blocked shipment back to Hong Kong of equipment and software manufactured at Huawei’s California-based subsidiary Futurewei Technologies, calling the equipment a security risk.
Finally this weekend, a Huawei executive was arrested in Poland on allegations of spying. The man was identified by the Wall Street Journal as a public relations officer and sales executive, who was detained along with a Polish government information technology official. The allegation is that the Huawei executive colluded with local officials to find ways to collect information from the Polish government covertly using Huawei equipment.
No one who has followed the checkered history of Huawei as a stalking-horse of Chinese intelligence can be surprised at these developments. Since its founding by Ren Zhengfei, a Communist Party member and military engineer, Huawei has been a key part of the Chinese military-industrial-complex and Great Firewall. Intelligence agencies around the world have long suspected that Huawei-made equipment enables Chinese intelligence agencies to eavesdrop and divert networks and data. The company has also been a chronic trade secrets thief and sanctions violator.
Now Huawei’s integral role in building China’s hegemony over the future of 5G, and hence of the future of telecommunications, has finally brought these worries into renewed focus.
The Chinese government, of course, has denied these latest allegations, and has come out swinging at Canada. Since the arrest of Huawei’s CFO (who is also the daughter of the company’s founder), Beijing has detained 13 Canadian citizens on unspecified charges, and just sentenced Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, also a Canadian citizen, to death on drug trafficking charges. When Canada protested those detentions, China’s ambassador to Canada accused Ottawa of “double standards” and even “white supremacy”—that charge that has to particularly rankle Canada’s ultra-liberal prime minister Justin Trudeau.
It’s not clear what reprisals Poland is now going to face. But Poland’s Internal Affairs Minister, Joachim Brudzinski, has already called for the European Union and NATO to work on a joint position over whether to exclude Huawei from their markets. That follows bans in several countries of Huawei’s telecom and 5G equipment, including the U.S., Japan, India and Australia. In December, the Czech Republic’s National Cyber and Information Security Agency issued a warning against equipment made by Huawei. Meanwhile, the UK’s British Telecom, which had been leaning in the direction of signing on with Huawei for its 5G future, said it would be stripping Huawei from the mobile core of EE, Britain’s biggest mobile phone operator which BT has just acquired.
All this suggests that the tide may finally be turning against the future of telecommunications passing into the hands of Huawei and other Chinese IT companies, and their Communist Party masters in Beijing.
But the Middle East has been steadily moving in the Huawei direction on 5G until recently, and accounts for five of at least 22 commercial 5G contracts Huawei has signed to date. Meanwhile Africa, where some 1.3 billion mobile connections–a number almost equal to the total population of China—await the next system upgrade, and even Latin America, are still up for grabs.
In his New Year’s message to employees, Huawei’s chief remained defiant. “Setbacks will only make us more courageous,” he proclaimed. “And incredibly unfair treatment will drive us to become the world’s number one.”
To prevent that from happening, the world still needs to see the U.S. and its closest allies develop an alternative plan for securing the future of 5G. Until then, stopping the Huawei Trojan horse before it gets wheeled through the gates, will be a welcome—albeit overdue–first step.