Over the past year, Huawei has gone from being virtually unknown by most Americans to a company that dominates headlines. Unfortunately, these headlines haven’t always been good (though their foldable phone looks nice). The Chinese technology company is accused of stealing tech from its rivals, evading U.S. sanctions, and more. Though Huawei is dealing with multiple allegations and issues, their real problem is much more systemic. Huawei’s most significant international problems are not caused by technology, but by Chinese government policy, and it’s a problem Huawei can’t solve.
Much of the debate around Huawei has centered around technology security. However, the issues are framed in ways that obscure the real problem. A commonly cited concern is that Huawei could add security flaws and backdoors to their products. Though a valid concern, this issue is overblown. Security flaws are possible with any product manufacturer, so the techniques used to protect consumers in other situations should work equally well for Huawei. Just as there are people who tear down Apple and Android products to find flaws, the same would be true for Huawei. Rather than fret over Huawei phones and devices, the more significant security concern comes from the mobile data that Huawei manages.
Over the past year, the U.S. has been pressuring allies to not use Huawei for critical data systems, such as with the upcoming 5G infrastructure installation. For example, countries were warned that using Huawei could lead to limits on information sharing between intelligence agencies. This pressure has had limited success, with a handful of countries in the South Pacific saying they wouldn’t use Huawei, and several countries in Europe reviewing their current plans for expansion.
Huawei has tried to counter U.S. criticism by saying they haven’t done anything illicit with the technology they have already installed in other countries, and that they would never do anything to compromise the security of their customers. Some observers have suggested that the push by the U.S. is merely an attempt to block a Chinese company without justification. However, these observers are failing to see the big picture.
The True Source of the Woes of Huawei
The real problem is that Huawei is a Chinese company and has to obey Chinese laws. Even if Huawei has acted benevolently in the past, if China enacts a law that requires Huawei to operate in a certain way, Huawei has no choice but to obey. For example, if the Chinese government demands that Huawei hand over all the data gathered by their network, Huawei must comply. If China decides that it’s illegal for a Chinese company to spread content that China finds unacceptable, then people who use Huawei will have to get used to the internet as filtered by the Great Firewall of China. Huawei says the company is completely independent of the Chinese government (though the number of Canadians who have been arrested following the planned extradition of a Huawei official casts doubt on that assertion.)
It’s important to note that this dynamic is true for every company and their country of origin. Right now, the U.S. rules for illegal content dominate much of the world wide web. And the U.S. government can subpoena data records from a company. So to suggest China would do the same is not unimaginable. The difference is that the U.S. has a more robust legal system that offers protection for businesses and consumers. For example, when the FBI wanted Apple to unlock the iPhone that was used by a mass shooter and possible terrorist, Apple refused and took the matter to court. It was not a foregone conclusion that the government would win, and in the end, the FBI found another way to get into the phone. In contrast, China is not a country known for tolerating dissent or defiance toward the government.
Though America is far from perfect, the nation remains the gold standard for freedom of speech in the developed world. This position is why America is the best choice for many online services, as you will have the lowest amount of censorship and a responsive legal system to challenge any government overreach.
It’s true that many of the concerns about Huawei are based on hypothetical situations, but they aren’t outside of the realm of possibility. More importantly, 5G will be essential to consumers, business owners, and government officials once the infrastructure is set up. This importance will give Huawei, and vicariously China, a lot of leverage over the countries that use Huawei 5G services. If Huawei starts misbehaving, the country can’t rip out their entire internet infrastructure and replace it overnight.
Similarly, a country that relies on Huawei for 5G will be far less likely to do anything that annoys China, since China could forbid Huawei from doing business in the country or make any number of actions that would disrupt everyday business. There are even military possibilities to consider. If there is an issue in the South China Sea, it’s unlikely that Huawei would be allowed to continue business as usual with the rival nation.
The China-sized Elephant in the Huawei Board Room
Though these situations are only hypothetical, the problem they highlight is genuine. And most importantly, the issue of control by the Chinese government is not something that Huawei can resolve. The truth is that China does not operate the same way as western democracies. It’s a system that works for the Chinese people (or at least the ones who aren’t in reeducation camps), but it is problematic when you try to mingle that system with western societies that expect less government intervention into business, transparency and an independent judiciary.
There was a time when western countries believed that China would become more like the capitalist democracies with which they traded. This transformation didn’t happen. Democratic governments are now at a point where they are beginning to consider the dangers of giving control over their most important form of communication to a country with a vastly different view on freedom of speech and open government.
Huawei’s unsolvable problem is the same issue faced by any company from China. Huawei must obey laws that put it under the control of an authoritarian government that will use any resource to accomplish a goal. Allowing Huawei to control the internet for a country (or part of it) gives Huawei, and thus China, an unacceptable amount of leverage and potential for bad behavior. There is no way for Huawei to change the Chinese government, there’s little China could do to assuage these fears without changing who they are, and the issues are too important to rely on Huawei’s assurances that they would never do anything wrong. Huawei has no more power to resist the government of China than anyone else in the country.
For more discussion about the issues surrounding global internet technology, check out the articles in the World vs. the Web Series.