Huawei battles to foster trust and fight UK snooping concerns

The Chinese comms giant Huawei is dogged by US allegations of hostile actions

Boris Johnson is due to make a statement tomorrow on the future of Huawei, and the news that the UK may further restrict Huawei's role on 5G networks adds another twist in the complex plot that has seen western countries attempt to sideline the Chinese communications superpower. Responding, the Chinese envoy has warned of unspecified outcomes if the UK persists in treating China as a hostile actor. Identifying who did what, where, when, how and why has become akin to following the jagged twists and turns of a John Le Carré espionage novel. 

Political shenanigans are serving to obfuscate the facts as the west moves to protect against China's rise as it goes head-to-head with the US for global supremacy. The US has already proposed restrictions on Huawei's use of US software and silicon. Adding to the febrile confusion are news stories carrying suggestions made in a dossier that Huawei had attempted to curry favour with power brokers through fake media settings. These reports were described as "unfounded allegations" by Huawei. And all this comes as comments by US leaders including Donald Trump deepen divisions over the source of the coronavirus.


A rapid rise

Given what's happening today, it's hard to conceive that just 20 years ago Huawei quietly launched into the UK, an unknown factor in a world where China had yet to assume seniority in the digital realm and where smartphones and 3G were only emerging. Today, Huawei is widely regarded as having excellent technical credentials for sitting at the heart of 5G networks and is recognised as a communications giant.

At an online event on 18 June to celebrate the milestone, Huawei global vice president Victor Zhang said to a group of journalists, including myself: "The digital world as we know it continues to change, but at a pace much faster than we have ever known. Our work and lives are evolving, opening up new careers and opportunities that would have been unfathomable 20 years ago."

That's true but Huawei's journey has not been smooth and on the very day that Huawei chose to celebrate, Zhang had been on TV news to rebut suggestions from former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who had told the BBC that "There's no question that Huawei has engaged in some practices that are not acceptable in national security."

Schmidt did, however, fall short of saying that Huawei had itself handed over data, adding "There's no question that information from Huawei routers has ultimately ended up in hands that would appear to be the state. However that happened, we're sure it happened."

Zhang noted that Schmidt currently chairs the Pentagon's Defence Innovation Board and told the online group of journalists, "The allegations made by Eric Schmidt, who now works for the US government, are simply not true and, as with similar assertions in the past, are not backed by evidence. Where we do agree, and something we've always said, is that applying standards globally ensures innovation, fosters competition and benefits everyone."

Asked what Huawei and other Chinese companies can do to stop the trickle of suggestions of spying, Zhang said that close collaborations with UK companies such as BT and Vodafone are examples that should engender trust. Also, he said, Huawei works with the UK's spy agency GCHQ and offers its software for testing, as well as abiding by security standards.


Politics and reputations

Sir Kenneth Olisa, a non-executive director of Huawei, said that the suggestions of bad behaviour had to be understood in the context of "a world where there are two major powers vying", leading to US protectionism. "It's not security" that concerns the Pentagon, but the US government was participating in a "geopolitical game of Risk".

He added that claims of miscreant behaviour were baseless. "If you think we've done something wrong, show me the evidence." That evidence has often been lacking or circumstantial when it comes to western accusations of misbehaviour and it's interesting that Huawei has been able to recruit eminent figures such as Sir Kenneth, former UK government CIO John Suffolk and former BP chief executive Lord Browne in public-facing roles, all figures of high repute in the corridors of power.

Huawei's lead in 5G network design may well be another factor behind the US's stance but Sir Kenneth said that American businesses would do better to focus on building better networks. "I don't like Facebook but I have to put up with it or build a better alternative," he suggested.

Sir Kenneth said that he had been at pains to tell the world to "understand the difference between Huawei and China in the same ways as there's a difference between BAE and the UK."

Asked where he would like to see Huawei five years out, Zhang said the Internet of Things, cloud and AI were all areas of focus.

"Huawei always fights to survive. We need to build up our long-term technological capability to survive and provide the best technology to our customers."

That fight for survival has become more acute in the few weeks since Huawei celebrated its anniversary. The latest developments are in line with a chilling of the relationship between the west and China but if, as a consequence, the west loses access to state-of-the-art technical infrastructure and risks a sharply  reduced global target market for its goods and services for its intransigence, the price will be very high. Time, perhaps, for evidence of misdeeds and for the west to put up or shut up.