Huawei underplays its Chinese government ties

Google revoking Huawei's Android licence is a dramatic move, sparking much speculation, but is it unfair?

Read time 6min 40sec

What if Huawei was a Russian company? What if Huawei was an American company? I ask myself these questions when I try to weigh the fairness of actions against the world's second-largest smartphone brand.

It's a convoluted landscape, helped very little by a trade standoff between the US and China. On the one hand, it is easy to see a case for China's pleas, that the US is running a smear campaign and attacking Huawei because it's a convenient target.

On the other, there are genuine suspicions about Huawei and Chinese technologies among many countries. It is hard to imagine the unilaterally-minded Trump administration could simply sweet talk these nations into throwing shade on Huawei.

There is basically smoke on both sides and therefore fires. But matters became acute when the US turned some screws, resulting in Google revoking Huawei's Android licence. It's a dramatic move and has sparked much speculation. The withdrawal is worse news for Huawei than Google because there are several brands that can step into the vacuum.

But is it unfair? There is no definitive answer for that, which is why I compare it to other contexts. In the first - if Huawei was a Russian company - I would have little trouble believing accusations of state collusion and espionage, and I wouldn't be alone. When Kaspersky Lab was accused of state links, the tars and feathers appeared quickly.

The paranoia around Chinese equipment existed well before the Trump administration, which may have made a mistake to use this as a chip in its trade war.

I want to believe Kaspersky is telling the truth, but I must admit I haven't used its software since. I mistrust the Russian government more than I trust Kaspersky. If you told me Huawei (as a Russian company) was helping Putin gather data on us all, I'd be very inclined to believe it too.

Granted, Russia has shown its hand in terms of dirty digital tactics. China hasn't, and proof of the accusations against Huawei remains thin. This may be why we can vilify Russian-based companies more easily than Chinese ones. But the Chinese state definitely has the capacity and temperament to do the same, if not worse.

Huawei isn't being honest either. If you study the biographies of Chinese companies, they all hint at heavy influence from the Chinese government. Not just in the cosy relationships that we typically see between the private and public sector, but also as a type of shadow shareholder.

If the Chinese government says you must jump, you jump. There is no recourse or choice. That state can fold a company's leadership like Russia jails an oligarch. This type of shadow shareholding often has real ties: when Chinese company Navtech acquired Silex Microsystems, a manufacturer of specialised micro-level machines, those tracing the money soon found links to the Chinese state. Another clear example is how quickly Chinese platforms remove or alter content in response to state demands.

So, if in doubt, assume the Chinese state is involved. If you are the world's second-largest smartphone brand, the Chinese Samsung, you absolutely have state involvement, especially if your founder has been a member of the party since the seventies. Huawei is underplaying its Chinese government ties.

But what if Huawei was an American company? I wouldn't be suspicious because of the above reasons. There is no way to avoid ideology in this showdown between the two countries. In China, direct interference is all but a given due to how the state there operates. The US state does not have such extravagant luxuries. It has to rely on the more basic tools of state power: large contracts and political favouritism.

China does the same, but it also has a knee on the neck of its companies, like a mobster strong-arming protection money from a storekeeper. It's implicitly enforced with a 'greater good' subtext. America, land of the free, is cowboy capitalism at work. If you want Google to make military-grade optic spying systems for you, offer them a deal.

This is very clear to see. Recently, Microsoft announced it won't supply face-recognition systems to US law enforcement. This is in response to social pressure on tech giants after Amazon started doing exactly that. In the US, companies have autonomy. In China, they don't.

If Huawei was a US company, I can readily assume it is operating on its own guidance and interests, and not only those of the government. It is true that Google's action was to comply with a government order - there are always going to be overlaps between the private and public sectors. But it's hardly a comparison to China's overtures.

There is certainly dirt on both sides. American services have been active in the cyber war as long as anyone else. But the paranoia around Chinese equipment existed well before the Trump administration, which may have made a mistake to use this as a chip in its trade war. I can't argue that the trade war is in the interests of the above concerns; in fact, it may prove very counteractive.

What if the trade war ends? Will that just normalise the use of Huawei equipment?

Don't forget: China has no interest in an open Internet. It has been a leading pursuer of the 'sovereign Internet' concept and in 2017 it and Russia even mooted a BRICS Internet, which thankfully the other members ignored. Commercial forces could keep its interests aligned with others, but is that enough to ensure fair play?

Some columnists have put out calls for international standards; some means to more accurately vet sensitive telecommunications equipment. It is likely China has no current interest in using Huawei for spying, but its track record suggests it is capable of doing so if it wishes.

The Snowden revelations showed how a liberal democracy can abuse technology. So what about an outright autocracy? Some Chinese cities have near-permanent surveillance on their citizens, even tracking their lifestyle choices such as visits to liquor stores, and it is abundantly clear that China is using technology to oppress minorities such as the Uyghurs.

For all we know, rogue elements there already abuse such tech in other ways. No totalitarian system is a seamless vessel. There are many holes and rivalries. It always brings me back to Russia, which at least fixes its elections. China doesn't have elections and recently appointed its leader for life.

Chinese infrastructure is widespread. China is active in over 80 different major telecommunications projects across the globe. Huawei holds the largest market share of global mobile infrastructure equipment. Collectively it and ZTE's share comes to 42%. The question isn't if we are using Chinese equipment, but how much more we should allow?

One of my favourite books, the absurdist comedy Catch 22, said it best: "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you."

This is the issue with China and its role in providing infrastructure for the future. Can we trust it not to take advantage? Maybe this Huawei/Android snafu is a moment to reflect on how much we rely on Chinese technology already and if we're comfortable with that...

* James Francis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in several local and international publications.

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