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MP brands Huawei exec a ‘moral vacuum’ as operators demand 5G clarity

Huawei chief security officer John Suffolk faces tough questions from parliament’s Science and Technology Select Committee over the firm’s links to the Chinese government

Huawei’s chief security officer and former government CIO, John Suffolk, has been labelled a “moral vacuum” by Conservative MP Julian Lewis as he struggled to answer questions over Huawei’s willingness and ability to support the activities of repressive regimes, and its alleged complicity in human rights abuses.

In testy exchanges during a lengthy evidence session at the Science and Technology Select Committee, Liberal Democrat MP and committee chair Norman Lamb, alongside Lewis, repeatedly pressed Suffolk on the accuracy of reports that Huawei’s equipment has been sold to unsavoury regimes and used for mass surveillance, and that the company is complicit in the repression of the ethnic Muslim population in China’s western Xinjiang province, as alleged by a recent Australian Strategic Policy Institute report.

Lamb said the report stated that the use of public security technologies, including Huawei’s Safe City family of products and services, had created a “range of political and capacity problems, including alleged corruption, missing money and opaque deals, operational and ongoing maintenance problems, and alleged national security concerns”.

Suffolk said: “Our starting point in the 170 countries in which we operate is: what is the law, and what does the law define as acceptable and unacceptable? I think it is right for governments to determine, in essence, their objectives and enshrine that in law.”

Lamb responded: “So if it is a dodgy regime, you will go with it?”

Suffolk replied: “I don’t think it matters whether it is a dodgy regime; it matters what is in the law. We do not create any moral judgements on what we think is right or wrong. That is for lawmakers to do. We execute within the law.”

Lamb went on to ask whether the UK should do business with a company that was allegedly complicit in human rights abuses, such as those thought to have taken place in Xinjiang. Suffolk responded that the UK should do business with all companies that operate within the law.

Lewis said: “There is a lot of law in China, isn’t there? Just like there was a lot of law in Nazi Germany. Some laws are good laws and some laws are bad. Some countries are totalitarian, repressive, one-party states, and that includes communist China, doesn’t it?”

Pressing Suffolk further, Lewis asked whether or not he had a view as to whether the Chinese state was repressive of human rights, to which Suffolk responded that he did not.

“You are a moral vacuum,” said Lewis.

“I don’t believe so, no,” said Suffolk.

Later in the same session, Suffolk was pressed on the same point by Lewis and Labour’s Graham Stringer, who asked if it was fair to compare Huawei’s position to that of IG Farben, the German chemical company that directly supplied the Nazi regime with Zyklon B, a cyanide-based pesticide that was used to murder more than a million Jewish Holocaust victims in the gas chambers, and lives on today in successor organisations including Agfa, BASF and Bayer.

Lamb said: “Basically, what you are saying is: ‘As long as we comply with the law, that is fine. We are amoral; we have no interest in what is happening’, like the one and a half million Chinese people who have been incarcerated in Xinjiang, for goodness sake. You do not care.”

As the committee sought to establish whether or not Huawei can indeed be trusted to form parts of the 5G networks currently being rolled out by EE, O2, Three and Vodafone – all of which depend on the supplier to some extent – Suffolk reiterated Huawei’s position that it has no ability to access any mobile network operator’s (MNO’s) network equipment unless granted permission by the said MNO, and by extension, no ability to access any data running across the network. In essence, this would mean the MNO would also have to be complicit in any Chinese spying, if any was taking place.

Suffolk said Huawei had never received any request from the Chinese government to do anything untoward, and repeated the company’s willingness to sign a “no-spy” agreement, if that was what it took.

“If it is relevant for a government to sign a no-spy deal, then we are happy to do that, but at the moment you would need to craft a deal,” he said. “Our view would be that to make it worthwhile, you would need to link it to the contract of the operators that you are serving.”

Suffolk went on to expand on previous statements made by Huawei’s Carrier Business Group president, Ryan Ding, that Huawei now had confidence that there were no clauses in China’s 2017 National Intelligence legislation that would require Huawei to co-operate with the state security apparatus or intelligence services under threat of penalty.

“Many countries have product laws that are unclear, and we have had to go through a period of clarification with the Chinese government, who have come out and made it quite clear that that is not the requirement on any company,” he said. “We have had that validated by our lawyers and revalidated again by [law firm] Clifford Chance. I believe there is no such obligation.”

Operators’ united front

Meanwhile, the UK’s four MNOs are understood to be preparing to put pressure on the government to come to a firm decision over whether or not they can use Huawei equipment in their 5G networks.

In a leaked draft of a letter to Cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill – the man who led the government probe into the premature leak of confidential discussions over the UK’s stance on Huawei, which ended up claiming the job of defence secretary Gavin Williamson – EE, O2, Three and Vodafone asked for an urgent meeting with the government seeking clarity over the use of Huawei.

The letter will claim that all four MNOs are struggling to invest in their underlying infrastructure because of the uncertainty over the future of Huawei in the UK.

Speaking to Computer Weekly last week, Three’s director of strategy and architecture, Phil Sheppard, restated the generally held position among the UK’s MNOs, which is that an outright ban on Huawei would be extremely disruptive. “All the 5G launches are relying on Huawei in the RAN [Radio Access Network] and the other vendors are behind,” he said.

“[A ban] will cost in terms of replacing 4G because the two are linked. You can’t just say you don’t want Huawei on 5G because you can’t have 5G on a site without 4G, so there are replacement costs, you’ve got a significant delay and probably an inferior product, initially.”

Sheppard also raised concerns that if the UK was to ban Huawei, it would effectively lead to a duopoly of suppliers in the RAN market, namely Ericsson and Nokia, resulting in less competition, and price rises that the MNOs would inevitably have to pass on to their end-user customers.

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