How does a society respond when the supposedly apolitical economic sphere of life becomes a battleground for competing political interests? Due to the pervasive influence of the Cold War – in which two superpowers, characterised by their respective advocacies of diametrically opposed economic narratives, were pitted against each other – the quandary I raised above largely remained peripheral in the minds of the world’s various leaders. After all, there is no need to worry about your adversary beating you at a game if they see said game as an exploitative bourgeois construct and refuse to play it in the first place. The circumstances in our current era are markedly different, however; China, which arguably constitutes an even greater threat to western hegemony than the Soviet Union did, has opted to capitalise upon the opportunities provided by the existing economic system and use it as a springboard to advance its own hegemonic ambitions rather than taking the somewhat futile course of attempting to supplant it outright. If we were to insinuate anything from the protracted dilemma faced by the governments of the west – including our own – in regards to the extent to which Huawei should operate in our territories, it would be that China’s approach is working.
To provide some context, Huawei is currently one of the world’s leading manufacturers of telecommunications equipment and consumer technology. For instance, it recently overtook Apple to have the second largest market share in the global smartphone industry, only behind the behemoth that is Samsung. The current dilemma however
is centred around the question of the role it should play in supplying the infrastructure for the west’s 5G networks. With promised speeds twenty times faster than existing networks, the economic opportunities presented by 5G are transformative; some would go as far as saying that it could cause some fundamental shifts in the manner that we go about our lives. Naturally, governments the world over are desperate to ensure that they have the relevant infrastructure ready to go without delay – after all, if a firm had to decide whether to expand its operations in a 5G-enabled country or one that wasn’t, other considerations would most likely fall by the wayside.
Enter Huawei, which is offering western governments (such as our own) 5G equipment that is cheaper, more advanced and more complete than its competitors. If assessed on a purely economic basis, opting to forgo Huawei’s tech would be tantamount to sabotage; Ericsson and Nokia, the primary alternatives currently available to the UK, lag behind the Chinese firm in all the above metrics. However, it is at this stage that I refer to the question posed at the start of this piece; Huawei enjoys intimate ties with the Chinese state, which is in no reality a politically neutral actor. Some point to the fact that the company’s founder, Ren Zhengfei, had a thirteen year stint in the Chinese military as a smoking gun in relation to its culpability, while others raise the allegations, given credence by the CIA, that the firm actively receives funding from the Chinese state. Whatever perspective you take on these facts, it is evident that we are not simply dealing with an actor motivated solely by rational self-interest.
At the same time, there is a case to be made against the claim that Huawei is a malign actor, seeking to penetrate and undermine the West. While Zhengfei has been insistent that the Chinese state has never compelled him to spy on his western customers, and that in the instance that they did he would defy them, arguably more revealing is the fact that the company has hitherto complied with the stringent conditions imposed by western governments as a pre-requisite to operate within their borders in the past. For instance, in the UK, Huawei agreed to have its equipment comprehensively tested for security flaws in bespoke facilities overseen by the state before it was used in our 4G infrastructure. Taking this into account, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to conclude that Huawei at least fully intends to act in good faith.
Nevertheless, even if one believed in the purity of Ren Zhengfei’s heart, trusting Huawei with our 5G infrastructure remains a remarkably expedient and short-sighted decision, for the simple reason that China’s politico-economic model, while tolerating the private sector, aggressively subordinates it to the will of the state. Envision a scenario in which tensions escalated between the West and China to the extent that the leadership of the communist party opted to deal some damage, and requested that Huawei either intentionally install vulnerabilities into their software or disable their equipment operating within western network infrastructure – would they realistically be able to say no? And the prospect of them even attempting to resist is on the basis of the generous assumption that they wouldn’t eagerly comply with the will of the Chinese state, whose approval that the company’s dominant position in their domestic market is contingent on in the first place. So, is our government compromising Britain’s cyber-defences by permitting Huawei to supply elements of our 5G infrastructure? Yes, as regardless of the bountiful economic prospects offered by such an arrangement, the company’s independence is ultimately contingent on them conforming to the will of a state that is hostile to our long-term interests; handing such powerful leverage to them might be a bad idea.