We need to talk about China. Again.
A quick google search suggests Chinese investment in the UK is rife, the portfolio includes British Steel, the National Grid, Thames Water and 10 per cent of Heathrow airport. In addition, the Chinese are involved in the UK nuclear industry with plans afoot for the building of a Chinese-designed power station in Essex – by the state-owned China Nuclear Power Group (CGN).
Which brings us to Huawei, until the UK government’s recent announcement the organisation was deeply integrated into the UK’s 5G infrastructure. To give a sense of scale, figures suggest that in 2013 alone Huawei installed 15,000 ‘cabinets’ (the large box-like structures at the end of streets) to facilitate fibre optic broadband access in the UK.
One source with an intimate knowledge of telecommunications industry infrastructure said: “These cabinets are Huawei products, if the argument is that Huawei could monitor activity using its 5G equipment – how is this any different?
Huawei and the Chinese government
According to guidance from the UK National Cyber Security Centre, under China’s National Intelligence Law of 2017 – which requires organisations to “support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work" – Huawei could be ordered to act in a way that is harmful to the UK.
The Council for Foreign Relations, an independent foreign affairs think tank, describes the company’s ownership structure and relationship with the Chinese Government as “opaque” and has raised concerns over backdoor access to the Chinese government.
Additionally, Chinese law requires communist party branches to be set up in all private companies, while Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei is also a member of the communist party. Huawei, for its part, has distanced itself from claims it has been, or could be, influenced by the Communist party.
Although, it has been confirmed that annually the company receives hundreds of millions of pounds worth of grants from the Chinese government, whose official policy is to support domestic telecoms companies, this support is unlikely to have come without a price...
Is there anything to fear?
The short answer is yes. The National Cyber Security Centre has confirmed the Chinese State (and associated actors) have carried out, and will continue to carry out, cyber-attacks against the UK and our interests. This has continued during the Covid-19 pandemic when in April and May Chinese cyber actors, based in Wuhan, targeted a number of European governments and their systems.
The UK certainly hasn’t been the only country targeted by the Chinese, though. In the past year attacks have occurred against the US (targeting Covid-19 vaccine research), India (a DDOS attack following a border dispute) and Australia (focusing on the defence department).
Ultimately, we know China has hacked UK interests and we know Chinese law essentially forces Huawei to become an instrument of the state as and when required.
From a Chinese perspective, using the latter to enhance the former is a logical step forward. While the threat from China might appear substantial, and it does lend itself to a hearty dose of paranoia, there is a very easy way to lessen the threat.
Simply phase out Huawei smartphones and technology in your business and where this is not possible then the use of a VPN or anti-virus software from an independent source will be important in risk mitigation.