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article imageOp-Ed: U.S. vs Huawei, facts, fiction, and more

By Paul Wallis     Nov 23, 2018 in World
Washington - The U.S. trade war with China includes a background narrative of espionage, intellectual property theft, and, of course, communications. That’s why Huawei, China’s huge communications company, is front and center of a huge global security debate.
The latest stage of the ongoing conflict between the super powers is nothing less than unambiguous “Us or Them”. The United States is asking allies to exclude Huawei from communications infrastructure. There is a truly gigantic media presence being managed for this message. Even Wikipedia has a “controversies” section on its Huawei page This is not news to some countries, notably my own country, Australia, where a weird dance is happening.
This is a reasonably good generic picture of Huawei’s current situation. Huawei seems happily settled in Australia, as it is in many other countries. In the same breath, the company is regularly cited as connected to Chinese government intelligence services, security risk, etc. , etc., …And not much seems to be being done about either situation.
Facts and (selective) fiction
Western governments have long accused hackers in China of plundering industrial  corporate and milit...
Western governments have long accused hackers in China of plundering industrial, corporate and military secrets
Tobias SCHWARZ, AFP/File
It doesn’t help the image, or the issues, much that the founder of Huawei, Ren Zhengfei, is a former PLA officer, and that Huawei is now the second largest phone company in the world. There’s plenty of good innuendo in those two facts, but not much actual thought, or, more importantly, hard information.
To explain:
1. Huge numbers of Chinese are “former PLA members”. Most of them aren’t billionaires, true, but there are a lot of them, ordinary citizens. (Matter of fact, I met a former PLA major, who conspired to show me how an erhu, a Chinese violin, was played. Talk about global tension rising…)
2. It is physically impossible to do business in China without direct contact with the Chinese government in many different forms. Whether you’re a gigantic global company or a fruit shop, you do business in direct contact with the PRC government, period.
3. Chinese intelligence services are not, to my knowledge, and with confirmation from Chinese people I know, limited in intellect to the point of mindlessly hiding behind gigantic Chinese corporations and thinking they're invisible. The Chinese intelligence services have a long reach, both formally and informally, and don’t need to play LEGO with phones to get information.
4. Would China, like the U.S. since at least the late 1950s, use corporations as fronts? Yes, but the U.S. apparently isn’t quite as successful in business terms. Perhaps a CIApad is in order, to make up lost commercial ground?
5. Could anyone in the intelligence community with a grain of basic electronics skills hotwire any service at any time, either their own or someone else’s? Of course.
6. Are “leaky” communications detectable? You bet your sweet off the Treasury record budget they are. Unless the NSA has been spending too much on sodas lately, there’s not much you can put on any system which can’t be located and exploited by the other side. Disinformation is a standard intelligence tactic, too, why stop now?
7. Is there a risk of plugging in a huge multinational corporate communications network to a national espionage player? There always has been, since long before the internet and the Internet of Things. Who’s to say INTEL, AMD, Apple, Microsoft, Google, etc. aren’t delivering easy access around the world for U.S. intelligence? Is anyone banning them? Not noticeably.
8. China, like everyone else, does conduct communications surveillance, notably of its own citizens, and foreign sources. All nations do this routinely. (The mystery is why China, with a national and expatriate population so proud of its incredible achievements, feels the need to conduct such intensive surveillance. It’s a bit like Australia conducting anti-terrorism espionage against The Wiggles.)
9. There’s also an oddity in the Chinese espionage theme. Some of the alleged Chinese espionage has been so easy to spot and so ham-fisted that it’s really rather bizarre. Some say, and I tend to agree, that this very much less than professional form of espionage is “entrepreneurial”, i.e. people gathering intelligence for sale, not for patriotic reasons. Not everyone is a great upholder of the revolution, and that includes Chinese businesses. They, for some reason tend to uphold their wallets, rather than ideological standards. Information is worth big money, and they don’t mind having some of it.
Diplomacy vs practical thinking
There’s been good political mileage to be had in the U.S. position of “containing” China for the last couple of decades. Never mind the fact that China is obviously not “contained”, or anything like it. Containment sells to the Washington hard right yokels, and the astonishingly naïve donor base. Given the Trump administration's stunningly myopic positions on anything to do with China, like this idiotic trade war, Huawei is the easy target for rhetoric.
Exactly why the Chinese government would choose such an easy target as a working vehicle for intelligence work is debatable. A big, unmissable, target is the preference, when any damn $5.99 thing with an internet connection or Cloud capabilities would do? Sure it is.
The U.S. is now blessing its allies (those still on speaking terms, at least) with this wisdom, in the face of all the trade and other issues the US has created. To say some of us allies are far less than impressed with this hypocritical hyperbolic hype would be like calling the Pacific ocean slightly moist.
Huawei may or may not be a problem. Focusing on them, however, may be an own goal in many different ways. China has a vast range of intelligence options. They have no reason to be visible, in the sense that Huawei is visible. They certainly have no reason to conduct business based on hardware and software which is publicly available and therefore hackable.
Nor do they need to carry out any kind of operation which can be so easily recognized and countered. Why would they stick up a sign saying “Hi there! We’re selling you compromised equipment, which you can turn in to a global propaganda campaign. We’re also making sure even your President and the Alt Right know all about it and can use it as political fodder! Isn’t that nice?”
I’m not saying Huawei can’t be a witting or unwitting accessory to Chinese intelligence. I’m not saying there isn’t a daily ferocious cyber war which has been going on for decades. I’m certainly not about to pretend that global politics is being conducted by people with the slightest interest in the wellbeing of humanity at the expense of their infantile power games, either.
The point of this article is that the simplistic answers don’t answer any questions worth asking. Huawei can be anything from a security issue to a virtual diplomatic pinata, and this shambolic way of managing issues, or pinatas, has never worked. This whole Huawei thing is bordering on farcical, not to say totally at odds with any real intelligence practices. If you’re talking espionage, you say nothing, by definition. If you’re talking diplomacy, you say nothing, on principle.
….And if you’re talking global politics, just don’t. It's really annoying.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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