Huawei must go
The UK already owns very little of its own infrastructure. Allowing Huawei into 5G communications would be another irresponsible choice.
There are many arguments for why the Chinese state — and, arguably by extension, Huawei — should not be permitted unrivalled access to infrastructure projects throughout the United Kingdom. I’d contend that two arguments, with the former focusing on domestic security and the latter on human rights abuses, are the most convincing. Primarily, the United Kingdom should not allow any foreign power — China included — to have any sort of access or control over Britain’s domestic infrastructure. Critics of such a laissez-faire approach are, admittedly, rare — the idea that Britain should own its own vital services is not exactly controversial. Those who disagree, however, are often vocal, alleging that such an attitude is protectionist, a distortion of the precious free market or just economically nonsensical (Huawei’s prices, as an example, are often lower than that of competitors). Secondly, and arguably more convincingly for most, is that the United Kingdom should not choose to funnel money towards a state that continues to commit genocidal atrocities against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and is currently in the process of forcefully suppressing civil liberties in Hong Kong. This is, of course, true — but that’s not what I’m focusing on.
These human rights “concerns”, to put them lightly, deserve universal attention and condemnation. It is not contentious that the Chinese state is rapidly growing in power, becoming more murderous and imperialist, and seeking ultimate worker conformity and efficiency in their increasingly capitalist economy. Huawei, however, insists on its innocence: the company, after all, is ostensibly privately owned and has no links to the state as tech competitor ZTE does. Concerningly, though, this supposed independence has not been proven: the firm is intensively secretive, and even Huawei’s executives have difficulty explaining the exact structure of Huawei’s administration. In April 2019, the New York Times published an explanation from Huawei’s board of directors that depicted a twisted form of a worker co-operative, with the company owned by its workers through a labour union. Huawei itself describes this ownership as workers owning “restricted phantom shares”, a murky term that excuses the lack of publicly traded stock but obfuscates the nature of Huawei’s supposed independence. Throwing further doubt on their claim of free operation is Chinese legislation that appears to require Huawei to assist Chinese intelligence work when called upon — and, furthermore, the persistent allegations that Huawei has assisted the Chinese government in the management of their Xinjiang concentration camps.
Lack of clarity over the firm’s independence means that whether or not British funding of Huawei would result in direct funding of concentration camps is unclear — and so, as said, I will not be focusing on the potential human rights implications of a UK-Huawei agreement. Plenty of editorial and investigatory journalists alike have already commented on the implications a trade agreement with Huawei considering their human rights abuses — personally, I recommend pieces by David Alton for The Diplomat and a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). This argument has been extensively covered — and yet the ownership debate, however, has not had quite as much attention paid to it.
Britain does not own itself
It is remarkable how little of Britain’s infrastructure is owned by Britain — either through British companies or directly owned by the British government. In 2010, a report from the government’s Office of Fair Trading (OFT) found that one-third of Britain’s infrastructure was directly under foreign ownership, including some incredibly sensitive businesses. Britain’s newest nuclear power plants, for example — such as Hinkley Point C — are not being paid for by Westminster, but instead by France’s state-owned EDF and China’s state-owned CGN — costs that the taxpayer will be expected to pay back over the course of the next few decades. Britain’s transportation industry is now dominated by Germany’s state-owned Deutsche Bahn and the Spanish publicly-traded firm Ferrovial, while Britain’s ports — and a quarter of all of its sea trade — is controlled through the ABP firm, of which two-thirds is owned by Canadian enterprises, 23.3% by the government of Singapore and a tenth by the government of Kuwait.
There is a reason for this: Britain has long held itself in high regard as a bastion of free trade, and — as a result — a bastion of foreign investment, potentially because our governments would rather other nations pay for UK investment so that they don’t have to. Foreign investment is not necessarily bad, of course, and I would agree that it has in some cases it has had positive outcomes: the OFT itself found that foreign-ownership can often lead to improved productivity and profitability, although this appears to be largely at the detriment of local, smaller communities. I further agree that protectionism is rarely the way to go: one major benefit of allowing a country to open itself up to foreign control is that it drives down prices as competition intensifies. However, these benefits do not come without consequences, especially where such investment and ownership is unrestricted.
Allowing foreign governments ownership of Britain’s electricity supply appears largely irresponsible. Furthermore, the horrific deal negotiated by the UK government in offloading nuclear responsibility to the joint Sino-French team has made Hinkley C the world’s most expensive nuclear powerplant — such foreign investment, heralded as the “driver down of prices”, appears to be often raising costs for both UK consumers and taxpayers. Electricity is not the only vital utility that the British government has virtually no ownership of: more than 70% of the shares in England’s nine privatised water companies are owned by overseas firms. Additionally, another of the great motivations behind opening the UK up to foreign ownership — the idea that trade liberalisation would result in democratic liberalisation — has collapsed, catastrophically: democratic backsliding is widely considered the new “norm”, especially in regions such as China.
Another strategic handover
There is every chance that allowing Huawei to form the backbone of the United Kingdom’s 5G system would come with no technological downsides. Huawei may be correct to insist that the Chinese government would have no access to Britain’s communications system, and they may be correct to insist that neither Huawei nor its technologies have any connections with the authoritarian government in Beijing. Such a risk is not one the United Kingdom should take: China, largely as a result of scrutiny over its human rights abuses and UN opposition to its imperial advances in Africa and the South China Sea, is becoming increasingly antagonistic to the democratic West. While I personally don’t care for “the West”, I would certainly rather that the democratic (or, at least, semi-democratic) nations centred around the North Atlantic were not subject to the demands of the dictatorship in Beijing, especially if China replaces the North Atlantic “West” as the predominant global economic force within the next few decades.
Britain should not risk being subject to the demands of Beijing. Westminster should not consider owing “favours” to China, nevermind having its communications intercepted. Additionally, as aforementioned, Britain already owns worryingly little of itself, with the government holding continually reduced power over the vital utilities that supports the British economy, British livelihoods and Britons themselves. Risking the ownership of the UK’s entire future communications network would be another irresponsible choice, especially when it risks handing control of it over to a potentially antagonistic and already hostile-to-human-rights nation. Nations outside of the global “West” — typically China and Russia — are continually using their companies to express control over powerless nations and to infiltrate those who they cannot dominate through economic imperialism. The United Kingdom should not continue to embrace being a member of that group.
In my personal opinion, Westminster should be looking at nationalisation of some of the UK’s most important industries — say, water or electricity. Nationalisation of other foreign-owned industries (such as transport) is less of a national security concern — although given the state of modern British railways I’m not entirely sure that the fruits of foreign ownership are being enjoyed by the British population. Communications, however, is certainly a security — and privacy — concern. Huawei may be telling the truth. China may have no access whatsoever to our new Huawei 5G networks. It would be another irresponsible strategic handover nevertheless. Getting us browsing sooner isn’t worth the risk.
This article was originally published on michaelrh04.co.uk.