Sieren's China: World's telecoms giants warrant general suspicion

We can learn an important lesson from the Huawei affair: The world urgently needs an independent international telecommunications authority to foster transparency in the industry, says DW’s Frank Sieren.

It's becoming increasingly clear that the Huawei affair is a defense strategy on the part of United States, a declining world power, against China, an emerging world power. The timing itself speaks volumes: Meng Wangzhou, Huawei's CFO and the daughter of the tech giant's founder, was arrested at the beginning of December in Canada after Ottawa came under pressure from the US. On the same day, US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, were meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Argentina to discuss the trade dispute between their two countries. At the end of January, just as China's vice premier, Liu He, was in Washington with a delegation to continue the discussions, the US Justice Department brought charges against the company of Huawei itself. The list of alleged offenses is long: the Shenzhen-based company is accused of violating US sanctions against Iran, as well as of fraud, conspiracy, stealing trade secrets and obstructing justice.

Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Canada in December

Washington has also put pressure on its allies to stay away from Huawei, saying that it has built backdoors for espionage into its technology. Washington's success has been mixed, but Australia has banned Huawei from providing 5G technology for its wireless networks. New Zealand has also blocked the company from supplying technology to its top telecoms firm. Japan is also planning to ban government purchases of Chinese technology, although Japanese private companies have yet to make a decision on this issue. The United Kingdom has made demands of Huawei to alleviate certain security concerns. Poland, Norway, Germany and France are still deciding whether to give in to pressure from the US. According to reports in The New York Times, Washington is trying to persuade Warsaw to come around by agreeing to establish a permanent US military base named Fort Trump in Poland.

Using political pressure to weaken an economic rival

In other countries of the world, there are no limits on Huawei. Most governments understand what is happening: Trump's collision course with the Chinese tech giant, despite the lack of firm evidence, suggests that he wants to use political pressure to weaken Huawei in order to help the US telecoms industry.

Read more: Using Huawei technology is a matter of faith

Huawei represents China's ambitions to become a world technology leader. It is the most successful Chinese company in the world; the leading supplier of networking technology provides for 45 of the world's top 50 telecoms network operators. Huawei's products are cheaper than those of its Western competitors and they are more advanced in terms of 5G technology. Last year, Huawei generated revenues of $100 billion (€88 billion) — twice as much as US market leader Cisco. Huawei invested at an early stage into new trends such as artificial intelligence and cloud computing and has since obtained many patents. In just seven years, it was able to take over Apple in smartphone sales.

DW's Frank Sieren

It remains to be proven that Huawei acted illegally in any way. However, because it is a private company, it is easier to create suspicion about Huawei than it is to do the same about its Chinese rival, the publicly traded ZTE Corporation. Add to this the fact that Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei was once an engineer in the People's Liberation Army and is also a member of the Communist Party, like almost all businessmen of his generation, and suspicion rises. And then there are the Chinese rules: According to a new cybersecurity law that came into force in summer 2017, in certain cases Chinese companies are obliged to pass on information acquired abroad to the state. What "certain cases" means is vague.

Read more: Germany's 5G: The bidders — and what's involved

There is no doubt that a private company's relationship with the state is different in China than in the US. But Huawei founder Ren, who hardly ever gives interviews, summed up his perspective last month succinctly: "I love my country. I support the Communist Party. But I will not do anything to harm the world." His word should be taken at face value. If there is ever proof to the contrary, it will come back to haunt him. Accusations alone do not a guilty person make.

What Snowden's revelations prove

Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei says he 'will not do anything to harm the world'

By contrast, according to The New York Times, documents provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden prove that the US tried to do exactly what it is accusing Huawei of today: As part of an operation called "Shotgiant," the NSA was able to access Huawei's headquarters in the hope of proving that it was being run by the Chinese army. No evidence of this was ever found. Furthermore, the NSA supposedly also tried to build backdoors into Cisco technology to access foreign data. The US judicial system now has to prove that Huawei did something similar.

Read more: Huawei indictment could trigger domino effect

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In sum, I would say that we need more transparency regarding state interference in telecommunications companies. One step forward could be the disclosure of source codes. There should also be transparency to ensure that all companies are treated the same way. What would make sense is a global telecommunications authority similar to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, which does not allow itself to be manipulated by Washington, Moscow or Brussels. It can surely not be in the interest of a new multipolar world order to have individual powerful countries trying to impose a worldview on the whole planet that benefits only them. In view of the Huawei affair, Europe could send out clearer signals along these lines in both the direction of Beijing and Washington.

Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 25 years.