Last week, the Supreme Court of British Columbia set a hearing date in extradition proceedings against Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of the Chinese telecom giant Huawei, bringing her one step closer to being sent to the United States for trial. This is a make-or-break moment for Huawei’s international ambitions — and perhaps China’s — if only because the company is widely tipped to lead the world in soon-to-debut fifth-generation (5G) technologies.
Ms. Meng was arrested in Canada late last year on behalf of the American government, which has charged her with fraud and violating sanctions against Iran. But the United States’ beef against her goes deeper than any Iran connections and will have strategic significance well beyond her fate.
Huawei describes itself as a private, employee-owned business committed to bringing digital technology to the world. Some question that characterization, and the United States government sees the company as an arm of the authoritarian Chinese state, beholden to the interests of the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.). In that view, China’s objective is global dominance, and major Chinese companies like Huawei — nurtured strategically, richly resourced and now successfully embedded in the West — are commercial concerns on a political mission.
Apart from the charges against Ms. Meng, in January the United States filed an indictment against Huawei for multiple offenses, including the systematic theft of intellectual property. The American government has been warning allies that the company has developed critical capabilities to carry out cyberespionage worldwide. Congress has banned the use of Huawei products in federal projects for fear of compromising national security. (Huawei has responded by filing a suit last week against the United States over the restrictions.)
With these moves, the United States may be hoping to protect the interests of American tech companies, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong about the threat of Chinese spying. That’s real, and laid out in the open: Just look at China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law.
The N.I.L. is no standard security and spying legislation, concerned principally with preventing the leak of state secrets. Its main thrust isn’t protective; it’s proactive. “All organizations and citizens shall support, assist and cooperate with national intelligence efforts according to the Law,” it says. (I know of no official English version; this is my translation, based partly on several others.) Another provision is even more explicit: The state institutions tasked with enforcing the N.I.L. — which also oversee all intelligence and espionage activities, civilian and military — “may demand that relevant organs, organizations and citizens provide necessary support, assistance and cooperation.” Spying for the state is a duty of the citizens and corporations of China under the law, much like paying taxes.
The N.I.L. offers enticements for compliance: “The state gives commendations and rewards to individuals and organizations that make major contributions to national intelligence efforts.” In its January indictment against Huawei, the United States claims that the company systematically gives bonuses to employees who pilfer intellectual property from foreign companies.
The N.I.L. leaves little room for opting out. “Obstructing the work” of China’s intelligence institutions is punishable and may be a criminal offense. Those institutions are entitled to “have priority use of, or can lawfully requisition the transportation or communications tools, premises and buildings of state organs, organizations or individuals” — and “when necessary,” set up “relevant work sites and equipment within them.” In other words, installing a back door in Huawei hardware to collect foreign intelligence would have a firm basis under Chinese law.
During an interview with CBS last month, Ren Zhengfei, the founder and chief executive officer of Huawei, was asked if he had “ever given any information to the Chinese government, in any way, shape or form?” Mr. Ren — who is also Ms. Meng’s father, as well as a veteran C.C.P. member and a former officer of the People’s Liberation Army — answered: “For the past 30 years, we have never done that, and the next 30 years to come, we will never do that.”
The Chinese government has come to the defense of Ms. Meng and Huawei, aggressively. Calling for Ms. Meng’s release in December, it threatened, “otherwise Canada must accept full responsibility for the serious consequences caused,” and later arrested two Canadians in China on espionage charges. When Canada, in turn, asked for the Canadians’ release, China accused it of double standards and “white supremacy.” Last week, China banned the import of canola from one of Canada’s biggest producers. The Chinese foreign ministry has also called the American charges against Ms. Meng and Huawei politically motivated and “immoral.”
Might quieter, behind-the-scene diplomatic maneuvering be more effective at saving Ms. Meng and helping Huawei? Probably. But a more discreet approach would be suitable only if Huawei were more or less an isolated case. If it isn’t, then when the Chinese government stands up visibly for an operative that is under threat, it is signaling to Chinese individuals and corporations the world over that it will also help them should they get into trouble while in the line of spying duty. This, too, is in keeping with the N.I.L., which provides that “the relevant state departments shall employ the necessary measures to protect or rescue” any person (or a close relative) who “has established cooperative relationships” with the state intelligence institutions and who is “threatened as a result of assisting” them.
The United States authorities are correct to point out that Huawei can perform critical commercial, military and diplomatic espionage; actually, Chinese law explicitly requires it to. Yet the law is so stunningly blatant that it may be difficult to take in fully, especially for some in the West.
Discounting the United States’ warnings, Britain, Germany, India and Italy seem to be leaning toward using Huawei hardware in their communications infrastructure. Some countries want to upgrade to 5G quickly and cheaply; Huawei can help with that; they see no obvious back door in its systems. In this, they are much like preys before a trap that’s empty and doubt there ever was a trapper who laid it out.