Last week, I received an unsolicited offer from a public relations firm I’d never heard of to travel to Shenzhen, China, to tour the campus of Chinese tech giant Huawei. The letter said I would have a chance to visit the company’s labs and meet with its executives for “off-record discussions on the various challenges the company is facing in the U.S.” Huawei was willing to cover all the costs of this junket — and told me not to talk about the invite publicly. I declined and published the whole thing on Twitter.
That provoked criticism from Chinese state-media figures, Twitter users claiming to be Huawei executives, random Chinese online trolls and even some Western journalists, all of whom depicted Huawei as being unfairly targeted by the U.S. security state. The China Global Television Network, a registered agent of the Chinese government, did a whole segment on it.
When Jonathan Landay of Reuters responded that he had received a similar invitation directly from the Chinese Embassy, a mysterious Twitter user claiming to work for the embassy suddenly claimed the embassy was sending around an open letter from Huawei inviting U.S. journalists to Shenzhen — a letter that has been printed as a paid advertisement in major newspapers, including The Post.
Unfortunately for Huawei, though, its new U.S. charm offensive is likely to fail — while the campaign to confront it, in Washington and other Western capitals, is just getting started.
Huawei’s public relations campaign is meant to push back against the U.S. government’s effort to exclude Huawei technology from U.S. and other Western networks because of the security vulnerability represented by the company’s products. (Washington is also aiming to punish Huawei for alleged sanctions-busting, an effort that includes the attempted extradition and prosecution of Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou, whose arrest in Canada has become a huge diplomatic kerfuffle.)
The Trump administration has a warning for its allies: If they build their 5G networks with Huawei tech, that would require the United States to reevaluate intelligence-sharing. Huawei’s defenders and apologists argue in response that this treatment is unfair, because Huawei is just like any other company striving to compete.
That’s demonstrably false and dangerously misleading. For one thing, there’s ample evidence that, where Chinese technology is installed, Chinese government spying follows. Just look at the beautiful headquarters Beijing “gifted” to the African Union. The building’s networks were reportedly sending data back to China via a “backdoor” for five years before management figured it out.
In January, Huawei founder and chief executive Ren Zhengfei (a former People’s Liberation Army officer) said he would “definitely” refuse any request by the Chinese government to hand over users’ data. That doesn’t pass the laugh test. The Chinese Communist Party has unparalleled power over Chinese companies, even setting up party “cells” in private companies, whether they like it or not.
Huawei’s apologists claim that the company, just like any other market player, should be entitled to U.S. legal recourse. But as Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies last month, there’s no equivalence between the U.S. and Chinese legal systems.
“Instead of maintaining independence from the executive branch, the Chinese judiciary’s duty is to further Communist Party goals,” Rosenstein said. “They direct their transactional approach to the law outward, with far-reaching effects. China, for example, appears to detain foreign citizens as a means of retaliating or inflicting political pressure on other countries.”
The Canadian government said China has detained 13 of its citizens since Meng’s arrest. It should be clear that there is far too much risk in exposing our future communications infrastructure to Chinese government control. National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis told the Wall Street Journal this week that if Chinese tech is used to build 5G networks, the operations of those networks could be manipulated at any time.
Huawei is free to try to use U.S. courts against the U.S. government, hire public relations firms, sponsor trips to look at the labs in Shenzhen, buy ads in U.S. newspapers and use its friends in the Western media to cry foul. But none of that is going to deter those who are responding to the threat.
“Huawei has made a great deal of money by pulling the wool over the eyes of many western nations,” Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) told me. “I have no doubt that much of this money will be funneled back into PR campaigns to distort the facts.”
Today, Banks introduced legislation that seeks to prevent entities from adversary countries, including China, from using research partnerships with U.S. colleges and universities to steal sensitive technology and information. Huawei has research partnerships with more than 50 American universities.
“Despite their claims, Huawei technologies and criminal activities pose a security threat to our universities and research facilities,” Banks said. “Thankfully many of us in Congress, on both sides of the aisle, refuse to allow America to fall victim to Huawei and Beijing’s tampering.”
It’s absurd to accuse the United States of unfairly targeting Huawei for simply defending national security. It was the Chinese Communist Party’s decision to weaponize its industrial policy. The United States is simply dealing with that reality and defending itself. Other countries would be wise to follow suit.