China’s plan for world domination faces a hitch. That is the upshot of our Government’s impending decision to curb Chinese technology giant Huawei’s role in our next-generation 5G mobile data network.
The move — likely to be announced later this month — will signal a sea-change in Britain’s policy on China.
It marks the end of decades of appeasement, naivete and greed, where politicians and other decision makers have put short-term commercial considerations ahead of national security.
Dazzled by this huge, fast-growing country, with its ancient civilisation, we have allowed the Chinese Communist Party and its proxies unparalleled influence in our economy, our universities and our political system.
Because the penetration has been so deep, the cost of countering it now will be high. China has already signalled that it will retaliate. Targets abound.
British people inside China will be vulnerable. In a sign of its contempt for Britain, the Communist authorities last August arrested and tortured Simon Cheng, a Hong Kong citizen who worked at the British consulate in the territory, when he made a trip to mainland China. He has been given political asylum in Britain.
A stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen can destroy a business too. In a hawkish performance at a virtual press briefing in London yesterday, Chinese ambassador Liu Xiaoming warned Boris Johnson ‘you cannot have a golden era if you treat China as an enemy’.
Any British firm that sells to the Chinese market, or which sources materials or components there, should be worried.
Our hard-pressed universities, so gravely dependent on high-paying Chinese students and research grants from Chinese sources, will be vulnerable. But the price is worth paying.
This is not a row about business contracts and technical standards. It is about the future of this country. It is no exaggeration to say 5G will be the central nervous system of modern life — our government, economy, transport system, and social activities.
Whereas new technology initially enabled communication between people, the next industrial revolution will centre on the so-called ‘internet of things’ — countless millions of sensors on machines, buildings and mobile devices, all constantly messaging each other.
This promises huge gains in efficiency and convenience. But it requires wireless data transfer at high speeds — which is where 5G comes in.
Hidden subsidies and protected access to China’s home market have stoked Huawei’s growth, helping its competitively priced products dominate the market for 5G systems, outstripping Western rivals such as Ericsson and Nokia.
But make no mistake: Huawei is not a normal technology company. Its ownership is murky. Under Chinese law, it must follow the Chinese Communist Party’s instructions unhesitatingly and in secret.
We can therefore trust Huawei only as much as we can trust the Chinese leadership. And as is now painfully clear, the bullies of Beijing have given us no reason to trust them — and abundant reason to fear them.
The Mail reports today how former MI6 spy Christopher Steele has helped compile a dossier on Huawei which accuses China of attempting to influence key establishment figures in the UK and alleges that Huawei is a ‘front for Chinese intelligence’.
China denies meddling in Britain’s affairs, the UK figures named in the dossier have said the claims have no basis in fact and Huawei has consistently denied any spying.
Whatever the case, for years we have tiptoed round this issue of whether we can trust China. Many argued — in line with what was then British Government policy — that China was set on becoming a friendly partner. Its ‘Communist’ label was misleading.
The decision-makers in Beijing wanted only to enrich and modernise their country. That would benefit everyone.
But as John Sawers, the former chief of MI6, said yesterday, the last six months have revealed more about China than the last six years.
The politically adept ex-spymaster is, I think, sugaring the point. For rather more than six years his former service MI6, the code-crackers of GCHQ and our friends in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance – which includes the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – have been warning politicians about the danger we face from China.
But the message was massaged for political reasons. In January the Government decided to restrict Huawei’s role in 5G. But not to ban it.
Sir John is, however, quite right that in the last six months the destruction of Hong Kong’s freedom, the brutal treatment of China’s Muslim Uighur minority, the bullying of Taiwan, military sabre-rattling and attempts to meddle in other countries’ politics have blown away the last cobwebs of complacency.
The U-turn, let it be said, comes not from spine-stiffening in Downing Street.
No, the real prompt for the new policy is from Donald Trump’s administration. The U.S. President’s choleric and haphazard foreign policy attracts many critics.
But it is American sanctions that have crippled Huawei.
The Chinese tech giant can no longer buy top-of-the-range, foreign-made components. The resulting uncertainty gives experts in GCHQ an excuse to say publicly what many have been saying privately for years: Huawei equipment is unsafe.
Modern software and hardware is so complicated that it is impossible to be sure that no flaw exists. That is why we update our computers and our phones as new bugs emerge.
These technical flaws do not just spell unreliability and inconvenience. They also offer the chance for malefactors — spies, crooks and terrorists — to breach our systems.
The more we depend on technology, the greater the vulnerability. By giving Huawei a role in 5G, we are hurtling in the wrong direction.At stake is our data. Already, China hoovers up information about individuals, businesses and governments all over the world. This, experts fear, paves the way for it to impose abroad the Orwellian surveillance and repression that chokes dissent in China.
Mobile phones act as tracking beacons and bugging devices. Facial-recognition software means every time you are captured on camera, you risk ending up in a database. Our financial information — payments and credit ratings — helps fill out the picture.
Our spies use this information too, for example to expose the Russian hitmen who tried to murder ex-spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury two years ago.
But our agencies operate under the strictest legal framework. Chinese espionage faces no such restraints.
For this reason, banning Huawei from the 5G network, costly and risky though it will be, is a necessary first step, but far from a sufficient one.
We face a long and arduous battle to extricate ourselves from the technological tentacles of Chinese power.
China has already gained an alarming edge in vital fields such as artificial intelligence and quantum computers.
Some of that comes from the brilliance of Chinese scientists. But much comes from countries such as Britain.
Self-interest and misplaced idealism has led us to allow China to rampage through our universities and industries, hoovering up human talent and technical secrets.
The Chinese presence in Cambridge is of particular concern. Last month the local authority there ignored security concerns to give approval to a £1 billion Huawei research centre in the university city.
We are in an existential struggle with a dictatorship that regards us with vengeful contempt. We have seen, with chilling clarity, the brutal treatment Chinese leaders mete out to their own people.
Given the chance, why would they treat us any better?