Spare a thought for the poor souls running public relations for Chinese smartphone and telecom giant Huawei. Because the headlines just keep getting worse.
The company’s chief financial officer and the daughter of its founder, Meng Wanzhou, was detained in Canada this week for allegedly being in breach of sanctions against Iran.
It was an event that sent markets tumbling over fears of worsening relations between the world’s two biggest economic superpowers, China and the US.
At the centre of everything, is a deep suspicion of Huawei and its telecommunications business. A fear held by Western nations that it essentially operates as an espionage wing of the Chinese government.
It’s a charge that Huawei staunchly denies but it nonetheless continues to plague the company.
Huawei is the world’s third-largest smartphone maker, behind only Apple and Samsung, and is also the world’s largest supplier of wireless networking equipment. But the growing suspicion of the Chinese company has it facing increasingly strong headwinds.
In August, the Australian government banned Chinese company’s — namely Huawei and ZTE — from involvement in its 5G network, citing national security. It’s not a particularly uncommon thing to do. A similar decision was made to prevent Huawei from tendering for the National Broadband Network years ago.
Australian Strategic Policy Institute cybersecurity expert Tom Uren says it would be impossible to employ Huawei without some degree of risk.
“The main concern is that they could covertly intercept our communications, and get access to our devices — computers, phones, anything with a signal,” he told news.com.au in June.
As a Chinese company, Huawei (which was founded by former People’s Liberation Army engineer Ren Zhengfei) is obliged to comply with government demands and could be compelled to gather intelligence on its behalf.
Huawei has publicly argued it would never hand over Australian customer data to Chinese spy agencies. However despite its assurances, Huawei has become a very feared brand indeed.
WHAT ABOUT HUAWEI PHONES?
Australian government employees in the Defence Department are banned from using Huawei or other Chinese made phones but they are still readily available.
That’s not the case in the US however, where politicians have prevented retail carriers from stocking Huawei smartphones altogether.
Japan is reportedly also set to ban government purchases of telecommunications products from China’s Huawei and ZTE over fears of intelligence leaks and cyber attacks.
The US and Australia have been among the most suspicious of the Chinese carrier but its Five Eyes allies have made similar public declarations against the company in recent weeks.
New Zealand’s international spy agency has banned mobile company Spark from using Huawei equipment in its planned 5G upgrade. Like Australia, it made the decision on national security grounds.
The UK government has now done the same. On Wednesday it announced the Chinese tech giant would be excluded from providing technology for the core 5G network being developed by British telco BT.
As for the arrest of Meng Wanzhou this week. It has led to a war of words in China’s state media which has accused the US of dirty tactics.
Influential tabloid the Global Times, published by the ruling Communist Party’s People’s Daily, said the United States was “resorting to a despicable rogue’s approach as it cannot stop Huawei’s 5G advance in the market”. The United States was abusing “legal procedure to stifle Huawei”, it said. “Despite incomplete information about the incident, the US move obviously goes against the consensus reached between the heads of state of China and the US in Argentina,” the paper wrote.
The official China Daily said in an editorial there was still “no telling” on what grounds Meng had been detained and that it seemed to be part of US plans to pressure its allies not to use Huawei goods.
“But one thing that is undoubtedly true and proven is the US is trying to do whatever it can to contain Huawei’s expansion in the world simply because the company is the point man for China’s competitive technology companies,” it said.