A robot called “Tappy” which monotonously jabs away at mobile phone screens does not, let’s face it, sound like the most sophisticated of technologies.
So it’s possible to feel a degree of sympathy with the Chinese firm Huawei which finds itself accused by the US Justice Department of the theft of this supposedly bleeding-edge bit of intellectual property from T-Mobile. The phrase “trumped-up charges” (in every sense) comes to mind.
Yet, of course, there’s a bigger picture here than Tappy and Trump. There are questions that go beyond the agenda of the current occupant of the White House and his rabidly sinophobic advisers. Foremost among them is this: are Chinese firms operating in the west a potential security threat? Specifically, should Huawei be shut out of the construction of new 5G infrastructure due to concerns that the company could build “back doors” into its systems that could then be exploited by the Chinese state for espionage purposes?
In my 2013 book, Chinese Whispers, I suggested that much of the then suspicion of China’s commercial influence abroad was over the top. At that time I argued that it was simply not in the commercial or broad economic interests of the Beijing leadership to use western infrastructure assets, or allow them to be used, for nefarious purposes. In some respects that remains true. It’s hard to see why there’s such anxiety in the west over the Chinese state buying brands like Weetabix, trying to purchase US oil companies or even investing in nuclear power stations.
Why would the Chinese state, which wants to use Bradwell in Essex to provide a proof-of-concept for a new global nuclear reactor technology export business, interfere with the UK’s power supply for political reasons? This would, at a stroke blow up its own multibillion dollar investment.
However, one has to accept that the Chinese political leadership has changed profoundly over the past six years. There has been a clear authoritarian turn under Xi Jinping, who has abolished term limits in place since the death of Mao Zedong. Xi has also launched a severe clampdown on domestic dissent, harnessing the full power of online technology to do so.
The new online “social credit system” is somewhat overhyped as a dystopian authoritarian tool, yet it could become one.
Meanwhile there have been countless assertions of party control over nominally private sector firms. Xi came to power promising to let the market take a more “decisive” role; but he has presided over a resurgence of the party-state. The giant Chinese internet and e-commerce companies – Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu, JD. com – have found themselves much more closely regulated.
Once it was just about possible to believe the assurances of Huawei’s founder Ren Zhengfei that it had experienced no state influence whatsoever and would not permit it. But no longer. And Xi’s conduct is to blame for that.
Alibaba’s Jack Ma was “outed” as a member of the Communist Party last year in state media. Members are required to show loyalty to the party above all else. Ma has also announced that he will step down by the end of this year and some informed observers suspect government influence in that decision.
In this context of surging digital authoritarianism and growing private sector subordination it is, sadly, prudent to keep private Chinese firms at arm’s length. The UK should follow the lead of the US and prevent Huawei from providing its mobile phone infrastructure.
This is unfortunate for Chinese firms and employees. Huawei is a genuine world leader in its field. And it is precisely the kind of globally competitive technology firm that China needs to prosper if it is to see domestic living standards rise over the coming century.
Perhaps the one, small, positive is that the shut out of Huawei from the west underlines the true nature of China’s crisis: that the country’s authoritarian leadership is now obstructing the country’s economic development.