Chinese telecoms company’s chairman says concerns about surveillance are overblown
- Advertisement -
An ad for Huawei in central London. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images
Huawei’s chairman has said the Chinese company would be prepared to sign a “no-spy agreement” with the British government to reassure politicians it has no intention of allowing its technology to be used for surveillance.
Speaking on a visit to London, Liang Hua said the company did not want to spy on western consumers and that concerns about Chinese laws requiring the company to cooperate with the regime’s intelligence agencies were overblown.
“We are willing to sign a no-spy agreement with the UK government,” the company’s chairman told reporters, the first time he has made the offer of such a commitment public. “No spying, no back doors.”
He said Huawei had not been asked to conduct any surveillance by the Chinese government and insisted there were “no laws requiring the companies to collect intelligence from foreign governments”.
Huawei is at the centre of a political controversy in the UK over whether it should be allowed to provide 5G mobile phone technology, with the US arguing for a total ban, citing concerns that its equipment could be exploited by China for surveillance.
Last month, it emerged that the UK’s national security council (NSC) had taken a decision in principle to allow Huawei to supply “non-core” equipment after a fraught meeting in which five cabinet ministers raised objections.
Shortly afterwards, Gavin Williamson was fired as defence secretary after being accused by the prime minister of being behind the leak.
Critics of the NSC decision, including the foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, have pointed to a 2017 Chinese intelligence law that requires companies to cooperate with the country’s government if required and say Huawei could be forced to comply with surveillance demands.
Asked whether concerns about the law were overblown, Liang said there was “some sense in that statement”. He said the law could not be enforced in practice because “there is no law that says if we refuse to enforce it [a request from Chinese intelligence agencies], it will be a crime”.
On Tuesday, Hunt struck a cautious tone. The minister said the UK was in the process of making an assessment “to what extent, if at all, we are using Huawei kit” in 5G networks and that the UK “will never take a decision to compromise intelligence sharing” with the US and other allies.
But Liang said he would wait for the conclusions of an ongoing UK review of 5G network supply to conclude. He said the UK should make a decision based on a risk assessment, adding: “We shouldn’t stop just because of fear.”
The chairman endorsed remarks made earlier in the day by a colleague who had said Huawei’s founder was prepared to close down the business if it was asked by China’s communist regime to eavesdrop on mobile phone calls.
Tim Watkins, the company’s vice-president for western Europe, said: “Our founder, Mr Ren [Zhengfei], has made it clear that he has never been asked to hand over any customer data or information and he has made it clear that if asked he would refuse and if it was attempted to be enforced he would shut the company down.”
A report from Oxford Economics, commissioned by the company, claimed Huawei had directly contributed £287m to the UK economy by 2018 and the contribution of its suppliers and employees took the total to £1.7bn. It employs 1,600 people in the UK, where it has supplied equipment since 2001.
British intelligence agencies led by GCHQ have argued that any risks from Huawei can be contained because a special unit known as “the Cell” exists to monitor the company’s software to ensure it cannot be exploited. Theresa May followed their advice at the controversial NSC meeting.
However, the former defence secretary Sir Michael Fallon said the UK should “take account of American warnings” and ban Huawei entirely. “I don’t see the distinction between so-called core and so-called edge. That’s the view that the US and Australia have taken and it would be a great mistake to be out of line with our allies.”
Senior Huawei executives including Liang have come to the UK for a long-arranged meeting with suppliers and partners, where they are publicly lobbying to be allowed to supply kit for mobile phone networks. Liang said he had not met any government officials.
Last week, Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, argued for a total ban on Huawei. “Ask yourself: would the Iron Lady be silent when China violates the sovereignty of nations through corruption or coercion?”