Within days, we are told, the Government will ‘decide’ whether to award the Chinese firm Huawei the contract to develop and maintain this country’s vital electronic network of the future — the mobile telephony system known as 5G.
Only, that isn’t really true. The decision to do so was actually taken under the previous Prime Minister, Theresa May — it just hadn’t been announced, in part because there was still work to be done to persuade Washington that the UK could be considered a reliable intelligence and security partner, even if we awarded such a hyper-sensitive technological and communications facility to the flagship company of a Communist totalitarian state.
Needless to say, Washington has not been persuaded. One of its officials has said it would be ‘nothing less than madness to allow Huawei to get into the next generation’s telecom networks’.
Huawei’s CEO Ren Zhengfei (left) pictured attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Tuesday last week. He founded Huawei after being a part of China’s People’s Liberation Army. Huawei’s chairwoman from 1999 to 2018 Sun Yafang (right) reportedly worked for state security before joining the company
The Chair of Australia’s Intelligence and Security Committee Andrew Hastie, pictured, said allowing Huawei to build a telecommunications network is a question of ‘digital sovereignty’. He is pictured in Parliament House, Canberra, Australia
This view is shared by our partners in the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence-sharing partnership (U.S., Canada, New Zealand and Australia). In Australia (where China is — proportionate to the size of the economy — a more significant foreign investor than in the UK) there is a cross-party consensus on the matter.
The chair of Australia’s Intelligence and Security Committee, Andrew Hastie, says it is a question of ‘digital sovereignty’, while his colleague James Paterson points out: ‘Successive Australian governments banned Huawei from our broadband and 5G networks with very little controversy. No one in the Australian political system regrets those decisions today.’
To understand why, it is necessary to realise that Huawei is no ordinary company, but the cutting edge of the Chinese state’s drive for technological domination.
Its founder and chief executive officer is Ren Zhengfei, whose earlier career included being a part of the People’s Liberation Army. Its chairwoman from 1999 to 2018, Sun Yafang, reportedly worked for the Communications Department of the Ministry of State Security before joining Huawei.
This was confirmed by Huawei’s global security officer John Suffolk, under fierce questioning from the Commons technology committee last year: he admitted that Sun ‘did have a role in that ministry’.
Wang Weijing, pictured, was arrested for espionage in Warsaw in January last year. She was the head of public sector sales at the Huawei enterprise
And as recently as May 2019, Ren — according to the South China Morning Post — told Chinese media: ‘We sacrificed [the interests of] individuals and families for the sake of an ideal, to stand on top of the world. For this ideal, there will be conflict with the U.S. sooner or later.’
Not that Huawei could be considered independent from the Chinese state, even if its bosses had no previous links with its military and security wings.
In 2017 China passed an Intelligence Law which states: ‘All organisations and citizens shall, in accordance with the law, support, cooperate with, and collaborate in national intelligence work.’
In truth, this merely put on a statutory footing an arrangement which already existed, and which is the hallmark of any totalitarian state. This might also help explain a couple of curious incidents in Huawei’s operations overseas.
In January 2012, the African Union signed a contract with Huawei and ZTE (which is owned by the Chinese government) for computing and communications for its HQ in Addis Ababa. It was not until 2017 that an employee reportedly discovered that every night, between 12am and 2am, the computer systems were apparently mysteriously springing into life, to transmit vast quantities of data to servers in Shanghai. (The story, reported by the BBC and the FT among others, was denied by the Chinese government, Huawei and the African Union. The full facts have never come to light.)
Given the significance of Africa in China’s overseas investment strategy, known as ‘Belt and Road’, this was . . . interesting.
And last January, Wang Weijing, the head of public sector sales at Huawei Enterprise Poland, was arrested for espionage in Warsaw, together with the former deputy head of IT Security in the Polish internal security services.
Huawei’s global security officer admitted that former chairwoman Sun Yafang had worked for the government when he was pressed by the Commons technology committee
Three days later, the Chinese authorities issued the following (leaked) instructions to their own media: ‘All websites: on the arrest of a Huawei employee in Poland, report strictly in line with statements from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Do not comment without authorisation.’
It’s hardly surprising that in the days running up to the official announcement of the British Government over its 5G contract, a number of MPs or former officials with security concerns have sounded an almost desperate note of alarm.
The former chief of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, has warned that Huawei ‘without question’ posed a threat to British security. Sir Richard added: ‘China wants dominance in its area of influence. It wants to be in control and its reach is getting longer. Where it has an influential role it wants to make sure it is calling the shots.’
And the chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee until the last election, the former Army Officer Tom Tugendhat, wrote in The Mail on Sunday that to rely on Huawei’s hardware for 5G — because it is the cheapest, and has a technological lead over its Western rivals Nokia and Ericsson — was short-sighted even on commercial grounds, as we would be locked into one provider.
He wrote: ‘Huawei is not like the others. It’s incompatible with rivals, meaning that once the hardware is in, you’re stuck with it. Such a dependency, combined with allegations about state subsidies, lead many to believe that Huawei’s bid is tech dumping — selling its products cheaply to achieve a dominant position.’
Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, a former army officer, wrote that it was short-sighted to rely on Huawei’s hardware for 5G
On his Twitter account, Tugendhat went further: ‘The challenge of the Huawei decision is not just today, but what it says about the values we will defend in years to come. Get it wrong — we’ve taken back control from Brussels only to hand it to Beijing.’
But it is Tugendhat’s former political colleagues (as well as former public officials who should have known better) that have brought us to this point.
The Conservative Party has complacently taken many thousands of pounds in donations to its coffers from Huawei.
The Conservative peer, Baroness Wheatcroft, joined the Huawei ‘advisory board’. (She was accompanied in this enterprise by such luminaries as the former senior civil servant Sir Andrew Cahn, the former BP chief executive Lord Browne, and the late former head of the Confederation of British Industry, Dame Helen Alexander.)
Huawei’s meticulous ingratiation into the heart of the British Establishment went to the very top: it donated half a million pounds to the Prince’s Trust. It was only a year ago that Prince Charles’s most treasured public enterprise declared it would ‘not be accepting new donations from Huawei’ because of ‘public concerns’.
Perhaps this was because of the Prince of Wales’s alarm at what Huawei describes as its role ‘in intelligent security innovation . . . guaranteeing Xinjiang’s social stability’: Xinjiang is the Chinese province in which around a million Muslims have been incarcerated in ‘re-education camps’.
But it was under David Cameron and his Chancellor George Osborne that this technological emblem of Red China was given the greenest of green lights.
In October 2013, Osborne visited Beijing, to declare: ‘There are some Western governments that have blocked Huawei from making investments. Not Britain. Quite the opposite.’ Cameron has continued to pursue this path in his business life after leaving Downing Street in 2016. The following year he announced he was helping to set up a $1 billion ‘UK-China Fund’, which, according to the Financial Times ‘is intended to seek opportunities for co-operation between the two countries in technology’.
The Prince of Wales, pictured last week on a royal visit to Bethlehem, has also voiced alarm at what Huawei describes as its role ‘in intelligent security innovation’
Former Prime Minister David Cameron and George Osborne first gave Huawei the green light for contracts in the UK
In fact, the nexus between Huawei and the UK began as long ago as 2003, when BT began talks with the Chinese company to provide devices aggregating customer lines and connecting them to the main part of the network.
The contract was signed in 2005. Astoundingly, although BT told the Cabinet Office that it was proposing to lock Huawei into UK telecommunications, the civil service ‘did not refer the issue to ministers or even inform them until 2006 — a year after the contract between BT and Huawei had been signed’, according to the damning words of a 2013 Commons Security and Intelligence Committee report.
Perhaps it is in this light that we should view the determination of Sir Mark Sedwill, the current Cabinet Secretary, to brush aside the concerns of Washington (and of our other allies) at the complete integration of our future telecoms network with the aims and aspirations of the Communist rulers of China.
To reverse now would be to admit that successive administrations had been badly advised. And that would never do.