We use cookies to provide some features and experiences in QOSHE

More information  .  Close
Aa Aa Aa
- A +

Huawei in Central Europe: From “Strategic Partner” to Potential Threat

22 3 0

Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) came back to the center of the global debate on Huawei with the recent Prague 5G Security Conference’s emphasis on “transparent ownership, partnerships, and corporate governance structures” and its recommendation to take into account the “model of governance” of third countries when assessing their “risk of influence” on information and communications technology (ICT) suppliers. The tech giant has been a hot topic in the region since a warning against its equipment was issued by the Czech National Cyber and Information Security Agency (NÚKIB) last December, which added heat to the ongoing discussion on PRC activities. The debate on the company’s involvement in cyber and industrial espionage, and its connections to the Chinese state (including the Xinjiang surveillance state) escalated after the Canadian authorities arrested Meng Wanzhou, the company’s Chief Financial Officer and the daughter of its founder, last December. This renewed focus created a window of opportunity for security circles to push against a company they had been warning against for years.

While the link between Huawei and the Chinese Party-state has received attention elsewhere, it remains little reported in CEE. Yet the region is a rather important part of the story and might prove to be a crucial battlefield for NATO and the EU’s relationship with China. The deployment of “lawfare” and United Front tactics shows the importance the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) attaches to the struggle to keep its “national treasure” well-entrenched in the post-communist European states. Both lawfare (the use of local legal systems to advance PRC policy goals) and United Front work (the cultivation of local entities to co-opt them as allies) are classic tools the CCP employs in its activities abroad. Although it is hard to generalize in such a diverse grouping of countries, the CCP and Huawei’s “elite capture” methods have yielded some successes, most recently illustrated by Czech President Zeman’s willingness to lobby on behalf of Huawei ahead of the Prague 5G Conference.

The effectiveness of these influence activities often depends on the resilience of local institutions and civil society and the freedom of the media. In some countries, these activities have encountered little debate, eclipsed by local issues or other external security threats such as Russia. The Chinese Party-state’s mobilization of all its available assets to defend Huawei’s interests against local concerns shows, however, that China attaches great priority to these developments. An assessment of the PRC’s relationships with CEE countries should, therefore, treat Huawei’s ongoing battle as seriously as the CCP does, recognizing its interrelatedness with the Party-state’s larger political influence goals. This article, based on our previous work on Huawei featured in Sinopsis’ ongoing coverage, interviews with officials and new sources in Chinese and local languages, seeks to contribute to an evidence-based discussion of the security implications of the involvement of PRC suppliers in ICT infrastructure. It summarizes recent developments in some CEE countries vis-à-vis Huawei and the PRC, including new evidence of Huawei’s links to the CCP, as well as an overview of the Baltic countries’ reactions to the Huawei controversy, so far underreported in English.

“Economic diplomacy”, geopolitics and lawfare: Huawei as the Party-state’s champion

Huawei’s battle for CEE cannot be isolated from the Party-state’s recent inroads into the region, notably characterized by political influence activities. Large enterprises are a component of China’s Party-led system, which embeds capitalist forces into a Leninist governance model. The Party-state’s leverage on state and privately-owned enterprises and the overlap between national and business interests give even privately-owned “national champions” a role as policy tools.

In Huawei’s case, the links to the Party-state are particularly clear. In addition to chairman Ren Zhengfei’s PLA past, one must add the intelligence background of Sun Yafang, Ren’s former deputy. Huawei cooperates with the PRC’s law enforcement, notably in Xinjiang, the CCP’s “digital Leninism lab”. In contrast to the attempts to downplay the significance of Ren’s CCP membership to foreign audiences, the importance of Party work within the company has been repeatedly made clear. As Chairman Ren once put it: “We are a Chinese company, we support the Chinese Communist Party.” A 2017 article on private enterprise Party work (funded under a Shenzhen CCP Organization Department project) noted that the “core members” of Huawei’s teams abroad, including “the complex and difficult European market”, mostly consisted of Party members. Although Party work in private companies has been increasingly stressed under Xi Jinping’s tenure, Huawei already had 38 Party branches in 2000, which had grown to 300 by 2007, long before Xi’s rise to power. In 2012, Huawei’s system of Party committees was transformed into “offices of ethics and compliance” (OEC) under a “committee of ethics and compliance (CEC), whose roles, as Alex Joske, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, has noted, continue to include Party work. While membership is open up to non-Party members and even foreigners, chairman Ren has said that Party-members should reflect about their leading role if they got voted out of OECs. Huawei’s Party secretary is described as its top “ethics and compliance” officer on Huawei’s website, but multiple Chinese-language sources refer to his CCP role. Dual Party branch-OEC appointments can also be observed........

© E-International