Huawei and Trump: The next frontier
Is the US targeting the Chinese giant out of security concerns or because it fears being trumped in tech innovation?
It’s hard to know what to believe these days, especially if US President Donald Trump has been anywhere near it. So when it comes to the latest news attached to the second-biggest cellphone brand in the world, it’s difficult to see the wood for the trees.
It started in October when Bloomberg reported that China’s People’s Liberation Army had hacked hardware used by Apple and Amazon. The tech giants denied the rumours. Apple said: "On this we can be very clear: Apple has never found malicious chips, ‘hardware manipulations’ or vulnerabilities purposely planted in any server."
Then, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported in November that Washington was asking certain key allies to drop Chinese telecoms giant Huawei. The reason was that they buy Huawei equipment and host US military bases. Washington had found that though the US defence department has its own satellites and telecoms network for sensitive communications, most of the internet traffic at military installations travels through commercial networks using Huawei routers.
"Huawei is surprised by the behaviours of the US government detailed in the article," the company said. "If a government’s behaviour extends beyond its jurisdiction, such activity should not be encouraged."
The entire feud hangs on the idea that the tech giant could, under a Chinese national intelligence law passed in 2017, be called on by the government to give over these connections and use this supposed loophole as a doorway to spy on sensitive US information — if it isn’t doing so already.
There’s also the fact that Huawei’s owner, Ren Zhengfei, is a former military engineer of the People’s Liberation Army.
All of this was enough evidence for Australia, New Zealand and Japan to ban the use of Huawei’s new 5G network kit. Though one has to wonder if the decision wasn’t in part aided by the fact that, according to the WSJ, the US was considering increasing financial aid for telecoms development in countries that shun Chinese-made equipment.
Things came to a head when Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s CFO and Ren’s daughter, was arrested in Canada at Washington’s behest for allegedly breaking US sanctions on Iran between 2009 and 2014. China called the move "extremely nasty".
But why was Meng arrested mere weeks after the WSJ report for crimes almost a decade old?
Washington is calling for a trade freeze with Huawei after the Chinese colossus has just beaten out the US’s golden goose, Apple, in sales, and Trump is attempting to kill off the rival 5G tech in the middle of a trade war. All of this from a nation that has no problem using its own tech giants to spy on the rest of us and selling our data to the highest bidder.
In March, before the trouble began, the WSJ wrote a story headlined "Why Washington is so obsessed with China’s Huawei". Reporter Stu Woo says the real worry is that "the company could dominate mobile network technology and eventually threaten Silicon Valley’s pre-eminence".
This suggests the real concern is that China will get widespread 5G coverage before the US does. It would allow rivals to vastly accelerate the development of "specific 5G-reliant technologies, such as self-driving cars". Ultimately, China could displace Silicon Valley as the world’s innovation centre, with the help of Huawei’s equipment — or at least that’s what policymakers in Washington and industry executives believe.
And maybe they should be afraid — not of spies but of losing ground in terms of loyalty. In spite of not being sold in the US, Huawei is runner-up in terms of world cellphone sales for a reason, and it has seen an unprecedented rise of its brand worldwide. Even South Africans have warmed to Huawei, despite finding it hard to say the name (wah-way).
In SA, first-week sales of the Huawei Mate 20 Pro exceeded the first-week sales of last year’s hit flagship device, the Huawei Mate 10 series, by 280%, the company reports. With the first batch of phones almost sold out, 14,500 more are on their way.
"The Huawei Mate 20 series offers consumers a compelling combination of powerful artificial intelligence, flagship performance, longer battery life, advanced security, a greater videography and photography experience, and more — all wrapped in a sophisticated design," says Likun Zhao, general manager at Huawei Consumer Business Group SA.
Advanced security indeed.
So we are faced with a conundrum. Do we believe the politicians who come to power with the help, possibly, of Russian hackers who aren’t shy of pushing their own agendas? Or the people who give us nice shiny toys that may phone home to a government that already lords it over its own people?