A former British diplomat called on Wednesday for Chinese telecoms giant Huawei to be excluded from bidding for the next generation of 5G mobile technology contracts, saying allowing such a move would be "irresponsible."
In a report for defense and security think-tank the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), Charles Parton warned against Beijing's "rigorous, ruthless advancement of China's interests."
"Allowing Huawei’s participation is at best naive, at worst irresponsible," Parton wrote in the report, citing China's history of cyber attacks as an integral part of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)'s interference in other countries.
"The history of China’s cyber attacks shows that an integral part of CCP interference abroad is getting access to a wide variety of information, whether related to industry, commerce, technology, defense, personal details or politics," Parton wrote.
"5G will be crucial to the future functioning not just of [critical national infrastructure], but to many processes which will be reliant on the Internet of Things," he said.
Parton is a senior associate fellow at RUSI who spent 22 years of a 37-year diplomatic career covering China. His report was published just one day after Britain's National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) said that any security threat arising from the use of Huawei equipment could be contained.
But Parton cited experts as saying that such claims were unlikely to be true.
"It is far easier to place a hidden backdoor inside a system than it is to find one," the report said, adding that many applications used by Huawei have more than a million lines of code.
Tseng Chien-yuan, an associate professor of public administration at Chung Hua University in Hsinchu, said many liberal democracies don't seem to agree on the security threat posed by the use of Huawei equipment.
"Some countries think they can contain [the threat], so they don't see any reason to impose restrictions," Tseng told RFA. "The U.K. has said it can contain the threat, but what about in the future?"
"Who is really able to defend against backdoors and surveillance technology, which could still develop further?"
Huawei indicted in US
Last month, prosecutors in the United States indicted Huawei on charges of fraud, attempted theft of trade secrets, and obstruction of justice, as investigators formally placed an extradition request for the company's chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, currently under house arrest at her Vancouver home.
Meanwhile, a separate indictment unsealed in Washington state after being returned by a grand jury on Jan. 16 accused Huawei of trying to steal trade secrets from T-Mobile USA.
It cited an internal offer of bonuses to Huawei employees who succeeded in stealing confidential information from other companies, the Department of Justice said in a statement on its website.
Parton's report said Huawei should be regarded as a potential security threat given a 2017 Chinese law requiring Chinese companies and citizens to comply with spying requests from the government.
While Huawei has repeatedly insisted that it is a private company with no ties to the state, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand are taking action to exclude it and other Chinese companies from their 5G plans on security grounds.
The RUSI report also called for further research into the activities of the Chinese Communist Party's United Front Work Department (UFWD) on British soil, saying that more information and transparency is needed about what it is doing to influence government, academia, business and society.
"The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sees controlling the narrative about China abroad as important for reinforcing its legitimacy and justifying its monopoly on domestic power," Parton wrote. "It is also important for advancing its geopolitical aims."
According to Parton, academics, think-tank staff and researchers should also be required to disclose their affiliations, backgrounds, funding and rewards.
He cited the example of the University of Nottingham, where "pressure has ... been applied to academics ... to stand down or avoid inviting certain external speakers because they and/or their chosen subjects were deemed too sensitive."
Pressure on campuses
China's attempts to control the narrative about China via its officially backed Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSAs) and Confucius Institutes embedded on university campuses could also be problematic for freedom of speech, Parton said.
"Such action, on U.K. soil, affects U.K. students and undermines UK values, particularly those of freedom of speech and association," he said.
"There is evidence of incentives and pressure on academics, particularly younger ones with careers to consolidate, to self-censor or to limit debate," he wrote, adding that university administrators were more likely to consider the effect on funding sources than academic freedom when responding to Chinese influence.
"We need to find out how pervasive such interference is, because, if left unchecked, unacceptable behavior will proliferate," he warned.
Parton also noted that a Cambridge University professorship in development studies was funded by a foundation linked to a member of China's political elite.
"Chinese funding for UK universities ... access to research in China and paid invitations to think tank events in China all create obligations which may encourage U.K. academics to shade the truth or avoid the awkward," he wrote.
He said the government should do more to enable people to speak up "without fear" when speaking about Chinese influence or interference in British public life.
When Conservative Party human rights campaigner Benedict Rogers was denied entry to Hong Kong in 2017, his mother and neighbors received letters denouncing him, Parton wrote.
"There have been other cases involving British citizens, including a similar case to that of Rogers (the victim has asked for details to be withheld)," the report said. "In both cases, the language, typeface and other features of the letters were the same as numerous threats delivered in Hong Kong. This would imply CCP involvement, likely to be commissioned through criminal gangs or triads."
In another case, a Uyghur exiled in the UK was directly told by a Chinese interlocutor that ‘we cannot guarantee your safety in this country,' the report said.
Reported by Wen Yuqing for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.