Huawei ‘prepared to sign no-spy agreement with UK government’

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.


Why is Huawei controversial?

Huawei is a Chinese telecoms company founded in 1987. Politicians in the US have alleged that Huawei’s forthcoming 5G mobile phone networks could be hacked by Chinese spies to eavesdrop on sensitive phone calls and gain access to counter-terrorist operations. Allies who allow Huawei technology inside their 5G networks have been told they may be frozen out of US intelligence sharing. Australia, New Zealand and Japan have banned Huawei from their 5G networks.

In the UK, BT has excluded Huawei telecoms infrastructure from its own 5G rollout and removed some of its equipment from the 4G network. In January 2019 Vodafone said it had decided to ‘pause’ the use of Huawei equipment in its core networks across Europe. The UK’s defence secretary Gavin Williamson was sacked by prime minister Theresa May after a leak revealed the sensitive decision that the UK would not be totally banning Huawei from 5G projects.

Poland’s internal affairs minister, Joachim Brudziński, has called for the European Union and Nato to work on a joint position over whether to exclude Huawei from their markets, after an Huawei employee was arrested on spying charges.

Much of the doubt surrounding Huawei stems from founder Ren Zhengfei’s background in China’s People’s Liberation Army between 1974 and 1983, where he was an engineer. His daughter, Huawei’s senior executive Meng Wanzhou, was arrested in Canada in December 2018 over allegations of Iran-sanctions violations, and she awaits extradition to the US. Ren, referring to trade issues between the US and China, says the company is ‘like a small sesame seed, stuck in the middle of conflict between two great powers’.

Photograph: Mark Schiefelbein/AP

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?”