On January 28, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that he would allow Chinese communications giant Huawei to help build the country’s next-generation 5G telecoms infrastructure despite warnings by the United States that such a move could expose the United Kingdom’s data to the Chinese government and hamper London’s ability to securely share intelligence with Washington.
There is indeed ample reason to believe Huawei’s involvement in the construction of its new telecoms networks would pose a security threat to the UK and its allies.
Huawei says it is a private company not owned by the Chinese state, so it poses no risk to any nation’s security. However, China’s National Intelligence Law, adopted in 2017, requires all Chinese organisations and citizens to “support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work”. This means Huawei would have no choice but to hand over network data to the Chinese government if Beijing asked for it.
The British government tried to brush away these concerns by saying Huawei would only be allowed into the “non-sensitive” parts of 5G networks and its involvement would not hinder the UK’s ability to share classified data.
Only time will tell whether this is an accurate assessment but there are other, more pressing, issues that make the UK’s partnership with Huawei alarming.
According to research by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), Huawei has played an active role in the Chinese government’s efforts to create the perfect police state in Xinjiang – an autonomous region located in the far northeast of the country that is home to about 10 million Uighur Muslims.
In August 2018, a United Nations panel of experts said it had received credible reports that more than a million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities were being held in so-called “re-education camps” where they are made to renounce Islam. While China claims these camps are built to “de-radicalise” people who are suspected of participating in political violence, Uighurs say they are being detained in despicable conditions for harmless, everyday activities such as praying, attending a mosque, or even growing a long beard.
Those who are not yet detained, meanwhile, live under constant surveillance. In Xinjiang, there are cameras on every corner and checkpoints on every block. Mobile phones are monitored and any application, text or call that appears suspicious results in immediate arrest.
In November 2019, The New York Times published about 400 pages of leaked internal documents showing that this crackdown was planned at the highest levels of the governing Communist Party of China (CPC). Headlined “Absolutely no mercy”, the leaks reveal an intentional campaign of mass atrocities.
Moreover, in a state news commentary cited by The New York Times, it is made clear that the aim of this campaign is to “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections and break their origins”. As The Washington Post put it in an editorial, “It’s hard to read that as anything other than a declaration of genocidal intent.”
Huawei is complicit in these crimes. According to the ASPI report, it works directly with the Chinese government’s Public Security Bureau in Xinjiang to help silence, detain, harass and intimidate Uighur civilians. The same report shows that it not only provides police in Xinjiang with public surveillance technologies, it also gives them on-site technical support. As far back as in 2014, the report explains, Huawei participated in an anti-terrorism conference in Urumqi as “an important participant of” a programme called “Safe Xinjiang” – code for a police surveillance system.
In light of overwhelming evidence documenting Huawei’s participation in the largest mass atrocity occurring in the world today, it is hard to excuse the UK government’s eagerness to allow the Chinese company to help build its telecoms infrastructure.
China’s assault on human rights in general and religious freedoms in particular is not limited to the oppression of the Uighurs.
In recent years, China has embarked on the worst crackdown on religion since the Cultural Revolution. Wang Yi, pastor of Early Rain Church who was recently sentenced to nine years in jail on the charge of inciting to “subvert state power”, has said it amounts to “a war against the soul”. The US Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback says “the Chinese government is at war with faith”.
The CPC has never allowed full religious freedom and has always repressed basic human rights. But between 1978 and 1992, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, the country had made some reforms that allowed certain communities to practise their faiths with limited freedom. Under President Xi Jinping, however, there is a renewed effort to control religious activity in China, and a new emphasis on the “Sinicization” of religion to make it “Chinese in orientation” and adaptable to “socialist society”.
Under Xi, China’s decades-long oppression of Buddhism also intensified. In 2016, the authorities demolished hundreds of homes at Larung Gar Buddhist Institute in Sichuan province, believed to be one of the largest Buddhist teaching centres in the world. The persecution of groups labelled “xie jiao” – usually translated as heterodox teachings or evil cults – such as the Buddha-school Falun Gong and the Church of Almighty God – also continues.
Add to this China’s ongoing oppression of freedoms in Hong Kong and Tibet as well as its persecution of dissenting voices within China. Chinese dissidents are still being jailed across the country, the people of China still have limited access to the internet and the country’s media is heavily controlled by the Communist Party.
Despite its claims of being an independent, private company, Huawei is a fundamental part of the state machinery working tirelessly to suppress most basic human rights and silence opposing voices in China and beyond.
The UK should urgently rethink its decision to let such a company participate in the building of its crucial communications infrastructure.