Huawei, Jesus College and Me

23rd July 2020

In recent weeks, we have witnessed intense public scrutiny of Huawei, its links to British universities, and its role in modernising British telecommunications. This attention has culminated in the government’s decision to introduce a ban on Huawei 5G equipment. 

Much of the focus has been on national security. The concern is that reliance on Huawei 5G telecommunications equipment might render the UK more vulnerable to Chinese Communist Party [CCP] cyber attacks, surveillance and other forms of interference. It is for this reason that the UK government has acted against the company. 

However, there is also a powerful human rights argument against Huawei. The company has been closely involved in the persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang and, at the behest of its masters in the CCP, behaves as if determined to normalize digital authoritarianism. 

My own engagement with this issue began at Jesus College, Cambridge, where I studied history. A year or so ago, I was miffed to find on the college’s website a glittering description of China under the CCP that, were it instead about the United States under its recent leaders, would leave many a college academic flustered.

The more I learnt about the college’s China Centre the more concerned I became. Its funding was entirely opaque. The director of the Centre had been meeting with Party officials implicated in human rights abuses. He was on the board of one of China’s largest Party-controlled banks. He had in the past written that China required “harsh measures of social control in order to maintain political order.”

When I first put these concerns to the Master of the College, she told me not to worry, because she had asked her admin team to change the description on the website. That was at the beginning of March. In spite of an exposé in the Times this month and a powerful letter from the student body which demanded events on human rights abuses and on Xinjiang, little seems to have changed at the China Centre, except the website. 

The story of the CCP’s governance of Xinjiang is long and troubled. What began a decade ago, in part at least, as a misguided counter-terrorism effort has morphed into a wholesale assault on the entire Uighur people. Journalists are not permitted to report freely on what is happening in Xinjiang, but a picture is emerging of forced sterilization, coerced labour, involuntarily relocations, arbitrary imprisonment on a vast scale, torture, censorship, and all manner of horrific abuse. This has now been discussed relatively widely in Western media.

Critical to the ethnic cleansing being inflicted upon China’s Uighur minority are China’s new technology companies – not just Huawei, but Tencent and many others too. State legislation enacted three years ago compels not just tech companies’ compliance with security services in individual instances when data is requested, as is the UK and elsewhere, but instead full and constant access, proactive collaboration and absolute secrecy. 

Information that flows through Huawei telecommunication networks in Xinjiang is open to use by the state to monitor and control the population and to identify individuals deemed worthy of state abuse. Just as Facebook and private companies use online activity to determine what advertisements to show individuals, Huawei and the Chinese state use online activity to determine which individuals should be shown to internment camps.

Not only that, but Huawei has taken up special contracts in Xinjiang, including direct contracts with the regional government. One contract for a project in the capital, Urumqi, was publicised by Huawei in China. “Together with the Public Security Bureau,” the company declared, “Huawei will unlock a new era of smart policing and help build a safer, smarter society.” This is not a recent development. From as early as 2011, for example, Huawei has been involved in creating smart video surveillance systems for the Xinjiang government. 

The CCP views the surveillance and control technologies deployed in Xinjiang as a set of tools to change the nature of a whole community, erasing its culture, its beliefs, its sense of itself, and its human dignity. This is a gross violation of human rights, and a form of extremism in itself. 

Moreover, the CCP wants the ‘private’ companies – which exist only because the Party permits them – to further hone these tools and to start deploying them abroad. In spite of its obligation to collaborate with the CCP, Huawei has begun to win major high-tech security contracts in other countries, including Zimbabwe, Serbia, Pakistan and the Philippines

On Tuesday 21st of July, Democrat Staff working for the US Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations (SCFR) published a report entitled “The New Big Brother: China and Digital Authoritarianism.” The report demonstrated the Chinese government’s “efforts to develop, export, and institutionalize a new, authoritarian governance model for the digital domain.” It mentions Huawei 159 times. 

In 2019, in spite of all this, John Suffolk, Huawei’s Global Cyber Security and Privacy Officer, told a UK Parliamentary Committee that Huawei’s lawyers had advised the company that “there are no laws in China that obligate us to work with the Chinese Government on anything whatsoever.” Suffolk also told the Committee that Huawei did not work directly with the government in Xinjiang, that “our contracts are with the third parties.” 

At the same time, Huawei has spent large amounts of money trying to improve its reputation in the UK. This expresses a feeling amongst the CCP that the UK is a critical Western opinion leader. As the executive of China General Nuclear’s UK subsidiary told state-run newspaper China Daily last year, ”If we are accepted in the UK … it will heighten our acceptability to other countries.”

Jesus College has received £155,000 from Huawei and £200,000 directly from the Chinese state over the past few years. The Huawei ‘partnership’ centred on a conference that took place in February and resulted in a ‘white paper’ released afterwards. Attending were representatives from other companies, such as Facebook, along with MPs such as the Conservative, Andrew Mitchell, who during a debate focused largely on the genocide in Xinjiang on Monday 20th July found time to call for renewed co-operation with China. 

The ‘white paper’ is a spurious document that calls for a “global communications observatory” and “moves towards AI [artificial intelligence] global governance.” Considering Huawei’s involvement in the observation of Uighurs’ communications and the use of technology to execute abuse, it is repugnant that a Cambridge college should take Huawei money to publish these views. There has been a deliberate attempt by Huawei to couch its extreme Orwellian systems in terms that appeal to globally minded, tech-savvy people. 

The ‘white paper’ also presents surveillance communism of the kind practised in Xinjiang as representative of the Chinese national character, rather as Islamists present violent jihadism as representative of true Islam. 

In one remarkable passage, the apparently characteristically Chinese desire to surveil is compared to the apparently characteristically British desire to protect children from abuse: 

“Transnational governance needs to consider differences in the normative standards accepted by different countries and other stakeholders. For example, the British focus on the importance of ensuring child protection, compared to the Chinese Government’s stance on the importance of ensuring social stability by limiting certain types of information available over platforms.”

In the Master of the College’s final email to me, she asked me to stop emailing herself, my former tutor, and the Centre’s Director “as we are now aware that your questions are more focused and driven by your wish to change careers, I am assuming, and pursue journalism…”

Digital surveillance of the kind practised by Huawei and other companies is the critical enabler of extreme human rights abuse in Xinjiang. It is unacceptably intrusive into the private lives of millions of guiltless people, and points to an attitude towards difference and diversity that is fundamentally extreme: stop being yourself, or suffer violence. 

Nearly a decade ago, the China expert Martin Jacques told the OECD that “what concerns me most of the rise of China personally, is how it’s going to see the rest of the world, which is a world of diversity.” 

When Xi Jinping took power in 2012, the world was full of optimism about China. Since then, Xi has removed term limits on the office of president. He has executed a brutal internal purge of a Party that, although flawed, has for most of its history harboured a culture of robust internal debate and opposition. He has cracked down on dissent throughout society and curtailed human rights. 

Extremism takes many forms. However, many are under the impression that extremism describes only the behaviour and attitudes of individuals and groups who are excluded from establishment power. 

This is complacency. We now seem to be faced with an expansionist dictatorship determined to use new technologies to systematise intolerance, erase difference and delete the freedoms of its own citizens and those of other countries. The time has come to speak out strongly against the extremism of the CCP.