Huawei Faces New Backlash Over ‘Mass Ethnic Persecution’ In China

By Blair Morris

January 18, 2020

Huawei's alleged involvement in Xinjiang has led to a new political backlash in the UK.

AFP via Getty Images

There’s a certain irony to the ongoing U.S. campaign against Huawei and the blacklisting of the company in effect since May. The key U.S. allegations underpinning the sanctions—Chinese state control and risk of espionage—are unproven and denied. Meanwhile, Huawei’s engagement in the surveillance state in China’s Xinjiang province, and the subjugation of the Uighur Muslim minority, seem easier to prove but have not featured prominently in the political debate. At least not until now.

“Huawei stands accused of facilitating a programme of ethnic repression and perhaps more,” wrote a cross-party group of U.K. politicians, as they lobbied the newly elected government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson to block the tech giant from core parts of the country’s 5G network. “We hope you will agree that the U.K. cannot and must not agree a deal with the company until such allegations are comprehensively dismissed.”

In November, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) published a report that claimed “Huawei’s work in Xinjiang is extensive and includes working directly with the Chinese Government’s public security bureaus—activities [that] should be taken into consideration during debates about Huawei and 5G technologies.”

Huawei’s technology has been linked to Xinjiang before, but the company has always claimed this is only through third-parties, that Huawei itself is not involved. ASPI has refuted this, claiming the work is direct, that Huawei is heavily implicated, noting that Huawei’s own PR lauds projects in Xinjiang, “such as the Modular Data Center for the Public Security Bureau of Aksu Prefecture,” and that “Huawei provides police in Xinjiang with technical support to help meet their ‘digitization requirements’.”

“The ASPI reports,” wrote the politicians, in a letter addressed to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and published in the Times on December 22, “show Huawei implicated in the creation of the world’s most far-reaching surveillance state—not only has Huawei repeatedly failed to condemn this, if the ASPI reports are correct, it is actively complicit in the creation of the surveillance technology being used to oppress the Uighurs.”

When I covered the publication of the November ASPI report, a Huawei spokesperson told me the company “reaffirms that its technology—which is general purpose and based on global standards, complies with all applicable laws where it is sold.” There is no suggestion that local laws in Xinjiang are being broken—that’s hardly the point. It is an international backlash, not a domestic one. For Huawei, if the dialogue does turn to Xinjiang, it becomes harder to play victim against a U.S. abuse of power… Saying it complies with local laws as a response to alleged engagement in law enforcement abuses in Xinjiang is unlikely to play well with hawkish western politicians.

And this is the crux of Huawei’s issue with Xinjiang. The company is caught in something of a political trap—knowing full well that this is a highly contentious issue internationally, but that it is now so reliant on Beijing’s support to help it survive U.S. sanctions, that it cannot be seen to snub the state. I suspect the company would step back if it could—as others have done, but it cannot. Huawei has been approached for any further comments on the claims being made and the U.K. political backlash.

In April, I reported on Huawei’s links to Xinjiang—the May 2018 strategic cooperation agreement for a joint innovation laboratory signed between Xinjiang’s Public Security Department and Huawei; the August 2018 launch of Huawei’s Urumqi DevCloud to “promote the development of the software information industry in the district and all of Urumqi.” The U.K. politicians referenced these earlier claims: “We call upon the government to cease consideration of Huawei as a contractor or partner for the U.K.’s 5G infrastructure until investigations have been conducted into Huawei’s work in Xinjiang and its relationship to the mass persecution of Uighur Muslims.”

ASPI’s November report followed the leak of the so-called China Cables, documents exposing the truth of the regime in Xinjiang. Another irony here is that other Chinese companies, including camera makers Hikvision and Dahua and surveillance unicorns SenseTime, Megvii and Yitu, have been blacklisted because of their involvement in Xinjiang. But Huawei’s narrative has thus far been different.

But, ASPI suggested in November, “as companies such as Huawei seek to expand overseas, foreign governments can play a more active role in rejecting those that participate in the Chinese Government’s repressive Xinjiang policies.”

Clearly, this group of 13 senior cross-party U.K. politicians agrees. If the U.K. does turn away from Huawei, the risk for the Shenzhen company is that other markets in Europe follow suit—the U.K. is seen as a technical influencer in the field and has conducted more security analysis of Huawei than anyone else. Conversely, if Huawei can persuade the U.K. to trust its equipment, that will position it well across Europe. This conundrum hasn’t changed, what has changed is the addition of Xinjiang to the prior U.S. security concerns. And it is likely that this will be harder to contest.

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Huawei's alleged involvement in Xinjiang has led to a new political backlash in the UK.

AFP via Getty Images

There’s a certain irony to the ongoing U.S. campaign against Huawei and the blacklisting of the company in effect since May. The key U.S. allegations underpinning the sanctions—Chinese state control and risk of espionage—are unproven and denied. Meanwhile, Huawei’s engagement in the surveillance state in China’s Xinjiang province, and the subjugation of the Uighur Muslim minority, seem easier to prove but have not featured prominently in the political debate. At least not until now.

“Huawei stands accused of facilitating a programme of ethnic repression and perhaps more,” wrote a cross-party group of U.K. politicians, as they lobbied the newly elected government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson to block the tech giant from core parts of the country’s 5G network. “We hope you will agree that the U.K. cannot and must not agree a deal with the company until such allegations are comprehensively dismissed.”

In November, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) published a report that claimed “Huawei’s work in Xinjiang is extensive and includes working directly with the Chinese Government’s public security bureaus—activities [that] should be taken into consideration during debates about Huawei and 5G technologies.”

Huawei’s technology has been linked to Xinjiang before, but the company has always claimed this is only through third-parties, that Huawei itself is not involved. ASPI has refuted this, claiming the work is direct, that Huawei is heavily implicated, noting that Huawei’s own PR lauds projects in Xinjiang, “such as the Modular Data Center for the Public Security Bureau of Aksu Prefecture,” and that “Huawei provides police in Xinjiang with technical support to help meet their ‘digitization requirements’.”

“The ASPI reports,” wrote the politicians, in a letter addressed to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and published in the Times on December 22, “show Huawei implicated in the creation of the world’s most far-reaching surveillance state—not only has Huawei repeatedly failed to condemn this, if the ASPI reports are correct, it is actively complicit in the creation of the surveillance technology being used to oppress the Uighurs.”

When I covered the publication of the November ASPI report, a Huawei spokesperson told me the company “reaffirms that its technology—which is general purpose and based on global standards, complies with all applicable laws where it is sold.” There is no suggestion that local laws in Xinjiang are being broken—that’s hardly the point. It is an international backlash, not a domestic one. For Huawei, if the dialogue does turn to Xinjiang, it becomes harder to play victim against a U.S. abuse of power… Saying it complies with local laws as a response to alleged engagement in law enforcement abuses in Xinjiang is unlikely to play well with hawkish western politicians.

And this is the crux of Huawei’s issue with Xinjiang. The company is caught in something of a political trap—knowing full well that this is a highly contentious issue internationally, but that it is now so reliant on Beijing’s support to help it survive U.S. sanctions, that it cannot be seen to snub the state. I suspect the company would step back if it could—as others have done, but it cannot. Huawei has been approached for any further comments on the claims being made and the U.K. political backlash.

In April, I reported on Huawei’s links to Xinjiang—the May 2018 strategic cooperation agreement for a joint innovation laboratory signed between Xinjiang’s Public Security Department and Huawei; the August 2018 launch of Huawei’s Urumqi DevCloud to “promote the development of the software information industry in the district and all of Urumqi.” The U.K. politicians referenced these earlier claims: “We call upon the government to cease consideration of Huawei as a contractor or partner for the U.K.’s 5G infrastructure until investigations have been conducted into Huawei’s work in Xinjiang and its relationship to the mass persecution of Uighur Muslims.”

ASPI’s November report followed the leak of the so-called China Cables, documents exposing the truth of the regime in Xinjiang. Another irony here is that other Chinese companies, including camera makers Hikvision and Dahua and surveillance unicorns SenseTime, Megvii and Yitu, have been blacklisted because of their involvement in Xinjiang. But Huawei’s narrative has thus far been different.

But, ASPI suggested in November, “as companies such as Huawei seek to expand overseas, foreign governments can play a more active role in rejecting those that participate in the Chinese Government’s repressive Xinjiang policies.”

Clearly, this group of 13 senior cross-party U.K. politicians agrees. If the U.K. does turn away from Huawei, the risk for the Shenzhen company is that other markets in Europe follow suit—the U.K. is seen as a technical influencer in the field and has conducted more security analysis of Huawei than anyone else. Conversely, if Huawei can persuade the U.K. to trust its equipment, that will position it well across Europe. This conundrum hasn’t changed, what has changed is the addition of Xinjiang to the prior U.S. security concerns. And it is likely that this will be harder to contest.

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About Blair Morris

Blair E. Morris 3849 Upton Avenue Brewer, ME 04412 207-584-3957