Britain is all a-tizzy about Huawei again as talk swirls over the imminent release of an unofficial report into the Chinese company’s influence over prominent Britons and a ban on its telco equipment.
The volume of industry chatter was turned up to 11 this week after newspaper reports that a controversial former MI6 spy had written an 86-page dossier titled "China's Elite Capture" which claimed China uses Huawei as a "strategic asset" to lean on leading "establishment" figures and convince them to take a more pro-China line in domestic politics.
The Daily Mail reported at length the claims of former MI6 spy Christopher Steele that China had used current tensions over Huawei equipment in phone networks as a means of recruiting "useful idiots". The firm denied this, describing Steele’s dossier as having "no basis in fact".
Not normally known as a newspaper that shies away from scandal and intrigue, the Mail caveated its reporting of Steele's "China's Elite Capture" claims with the sentence: "The dossier, seen by the Daily Mail, is not being formally published, and does not contain corroborating evidence of some of its claims."
Steele previously wrote a lurid dossier claiming US president Donald Trump was the subject of extensive files of compromising material gathered by Vladimir Putin's Russia, a sensational claim when made in 2016. It continues to be the source of political gossip today.
Ban by Britain still on cards
Separately, speculation has swirled over the past weeks that Britain is set to ban its telcos from buying any Huawei-made network equipment, something very unlikely to have practical effect until the middle of this decade at the earliest thanks to Huawei's heavy presence in LTE/4G networks and nascent 5G networks alike.
China's London ambassador, Liu Xiaoming, hit back at Britain on Monday over reports of an impending ban by telling an international media briefing: "When you get rid of Huawei, it sends out a very wrong message. You punish your image as a country that can conduct independent policy. It means you succumb to foreign pressure and you cannot make your own independent foreign policy. I always say Britain can only be great when it can have its independent foreign policy."
Ambassador Liu also lashed out at Britain’s decision to offer citizenship to 3 million Hong Kongers entitled to British nationality, something which would allow them to safely flee the newly assimilated autonomous territory. China tore up its diplomatic obligations to the UK, made in 1997 when the former colony was handed back to China after a century of British rule. The Asian superpower recently imposed a draconian security law on Hong Kong.
That new law criminalises dissent in the formerly democratic colony, whose inhabitants are continuing protests.
NCSC report received by UK.gov
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has received an NCSC-backed report into Huawei, having told BBC radio yesterday: "We're now examining it and understanding the implications of it."
This appears to be a reference to be the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre's annual report into the Chinese company's equipment and software-writing practices, something “the Cell” didn’t hold back on last year.
NCSC is said to have examined the impact of the most recent US sanctions against Huawei, including the fact that they ban the firm from using American-designed electronic design automation software for laying out its silicon chips. It is said, by the Beeb, that Huawei turning to non-Western chip design and fabrication sources could cause NCSC to declare it too difficult to fully vet both the physical hardware and the processes used to write software and firmware running on it.
Amid not-entirely-groundless concerns that Huawei is an integrated foreign policy tool of the Chinese state, a “no” from NCSC could provide Prime Minister Boris Johnson with the perfect excuse to ban Huawei’s carrier-grade equipment from British phone networks.
The argument is as much about politics as it is Huawei's technical capabilities. UK telco sources who spoke frankly to El Reg off the record have generally praised the Chinese company’s wares and general approach while shrugging their shoulders at the political war over its presence in Britain.
Whatever decision Britain makes about Huawei in the next few weeks will have a lasting impact on UK international relations both westwards and eastwards, as well as on Britain’s economic competitiveness in terms of widespread public access to low-latency 5G – though even that political soundbite bears closer scrutiny.
Some on the less globalist side of the debate might argue that all of this hinging on one Chinese-owned company’s products rather proves their point. ®