Hostages, espionage and a global trade war—how a Chinese telecoms company is trying to conquer the worldby Isabel Hilton / July 12, 2019 / Leave a comment
On the recently completed Huawei campus in Dongguan, near Shenzhen in southern China, 17,000 employees and three imported black swans enjoy life in 12 “villages” built in ersatz European style and set in a landscape of lakes and greenery. The black swans are there to remind the people working at the world’s second largest provider of smartphones and the biggest supplier of networking equipment that nothing is certain, and that it is important to prepare for the unexpected.
That thought was vindicated on 1st December last year, thousands of miles and several time zones away from Dongguan’s humid atmosphere, when Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s COO and daughter of the company’s founder Ren Zhengfei, was detained in Vancouver en route from China to Mexico. She is now facing extradition proceedings to the United States on charges of bank and wire fraud, and conspiracy to commit both in order to evade US sanctions on Iran.
The controversy around this case underlines how this single firm has become a crucible for the Great Power contest between the US and the People’s Republic of China, one that has dragged American allies into the tensions. It raises questions about economic supremacy, defence and security in a world in which China increasingly aspires to the upper hand.
In western capitals, Huawei channels profound anxieties about the motives, strategies and ambitions of the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese state and the -companies it controls. Beijing insists that the suspicion it has built up Huawei to usurp western technological monopolies—and that its telecoms expose customers to risks of espionage or future sabotage—are unfounded. Huawei’s supporters, including at the highest levels of the Chinese government, argue that such charges betray a declining power’s fear of a rising power’s innovative energy. Huawei itself, meanwhile, insists that it is simply a private company owned by its employees, unrelated to government or Party. A long list of intelligence agents and investigative reports have found that claim less than credible.
The imminent deployment of 5G technology—the speed and bandwidth of which promises to be the foundation of transformative AI and the internet of things—has brought long-running tensions between China and the US to crisis point. The Washington establishment is alarmed, although Trump himself is characteristically inconsistent.
In other western capitals, leaders grapple with profound conflicts of interest—between long-established…