The People’s Liberation Army boasts 2 million soldiers but doesn’t deign to have a website: The world’s largest army hides in plain sight, both inside China and globally. Many Chinese companies quietly partner with the PLA, and the world’s largest telecommunications manufacturer, Huawei, is no exception. That Huawei maintains ties to the military in its home country isn’t unusual — it’s true for all telecommunications giants. The problem lies with Huawei, the PLA and the Chinese Communist Party.
After a June 29 meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Japan, President Trump announced the loosening of U.S. government restrictions on Huawei. But a temporary truce in the trade war between the United States and China doesn’t reduce the national security risk Huawei poses. Indeed, regardless of how Trump describes the company in the future, we should continue to mistrust it.
There are three reasons Huawei — and not, say, the British telecom firm BT — jeopardizes American national security. The first is that China does not have a national military. The PLA belongs to the party, and not to the country or its people. Whether they like it or not, Huawei and the PLA ultimately serve the same master — the party, headed by Xi. The second is that tensions between the United States and China mean that a corporation’s ties with the PLA are more worrying than, say, with Her Majesty’s Armed Forces in Britain. But the third reason rests squarely with Huawei’s dishonesty.
The U.S. government has long accused Huawei of deep ties to the Chinese government and the military, and Huawei has long denied or downplayed those ties. “Our founder Ren Zhengfei is a CEO who, like many other business leaders in the US and elsewhere, served in the military at an early stage of his life,” Huawei writes on its website. “Ren joined the People’s Liberation Army Engineering Corps in 1974 and retired nine years later in 1983.” It omits Huawei’s many other links to the PLA, such as how the company built the PLA’s first nationwide communications network in the late 1990s.
Consider chief legal officer Song Liuping, who has emerged as the defender of Huawei’s innocence in both the U.S. legal system — the company sued the U.S. government multiple times in 2019 — and in the court of American public opinion. “The U.S. government has provided no evidence to show that Huawei is a security threat,” Song said in May. In a late-June article revealing that Huawei employees worked on research projects with the PLA, Bloomberg News quoted Song as follows: “Huawei doesn’t customize products nor provide research for the military.”
But Song’s own background makes him an unconvincing spokesman. The English- and Chinese-language versions of Huawei’s website list only the university where Song did his postdoctoral research, the Beijing Institute of Technology, a respected school in China’s capital. But a search in Chinese-language media reveals that Song received his bachelor’s, master’s and PhD from the People’s Liberation Army National University of Defense Science and Technology.
Song is not the only top official with undisclosed ties to the PLA. Huawei’s website lists the company’s chairman, Liang Hua, as having received his doctorate from the school now known as the Wuhan University of Technology. Liang received his bachelor’s and master’s from the Chinese military research institute the Northwestern Polytechnical University (NPU), according to an article on that university’s website. That website also shows that Yu Chengdong, the chief executive of one of Huawei’s three business units, Huawei Consumer BG, received his bachelor’s from NPU, and lectured to roughly 2,000 of the school’s graduates in 2014. (Huawei didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Of course Huawei maintains deep ties to the military. It would be shocking for a telecommunications company of Huawei’s size and influence to lack those ties. Verizon employs more than 10,000 veterans, and the former chief executive of Britain’s largest mobile company, BT, said in 2017 that “we’re proud to be the largest employer of armed forces veterans and reservists in the UK,” As Bloomberg News’s Tim Culpan points out, AT&T collaborates with the U.S. Army and Google helped the Defense Department with its drone programs. Yet imagine the outcry if Google’s Eric Schmidt had received his bachelor’s from West Point but hid that in his bio, or if Google declined to admit that it had ever worked with the Pentagon?
The existence of the ties are not as worrying as the lengths Huawei and Beijing go to keep them secret.
In 2016, Huawei helped a Chinese army hospital improve its IT infrastructure — an unobjectionable action but one that proves, once again, that Huawei misrepresented its relationship with the military. The source for this exclusive? A Chinese-language article on www.huawei.com. “There is no gun, no smoke. Only speculation,” Song said in May. When Huawei’s official website belies its representatives — some of whom, such as Song, had previously undisclosed links to the military — suspicion is justified. What else is Huawei hiding?
Connor Swank contributed research.