Huawei is not obliged to compromise its products in order to comply with China’s intelligence law, a senior executive at the company has told MPs at a UK parliamentary hearing.
John Suffolk, the telecoms firm’s global cybersecurity and privacy officer, said its understanding was that China’s 2017 requirement on companies to cooperate with its intelligence agencies when requested did not apply in its case.
“I’m saying the interpretation of what that means, according to our legal advice, doesn’t require Huawei to undertake anything that weakens Huawei’s position in terms of security,” Suffolk told the Commons science and technology committee.
The executive fielded a series of hostile questions from the Conservative MP Julian Lewis, who made it clear he did not accept the answers. “I think that’s entirely unbelievable,” Lewis said.
Critics of Huawei who say it should not be allowed to supply 5G technology to the UK often cite the 2017 intelligence law, saying it demonstrates China could require the company to spy on British citizens in the future.
Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary and now a Conservative leadership contender, cited the existence of the law in April as an argument to justify “a degree of caution” in using next-generation mobile phone technology supplied by Huawei.
Suffolk said the company had sought to clarify its interpretation of the law because “there was doubt in our minds, the law was unclear [and] there was doubt also in our customers’ minds.”
He said Huawei had sought clarification from the Chinese to justify its position, which he suggested applied globally. It was validated by its lawyers and “revalidated” by the international law firm Clifford Chance, he said.
Lewis asked Suffolk: “Is it possible to have an independent company the size of Huawei in a one-party, communist, totalitarian state?” Suffolk replied: “I believe we are an independent company.”
Huawei, founded by Ren Zhengfei in 1987, is a private company 99% owned by a trade union representing its Chinese employees. The company has repeatedly said the Chinese government has never asked it to spy on its customers.
Theresa May was prepared to allow Huawei to supply technology to “non core” parts of the UK’s 5G network, but concerns elsewhere in cabinet have delayed a final decision until a new Conservative leader is elected.
Washington had been conducting a lobbying campaign against Huawei, asking western governments not to use its technology at all in 5G networks and warning the UK that intelligence-sharing could be compromised. But on Monday Donald Trump appeared to contradict some of that argument.
Asked on CNBC if Huawei was simply a “chess piece” to be used in wider US-China trade negotiations, the US president said he believed the row could be resolved “as a part of trade negotiations”.
Suffolk repeatedly told the MPs that the company aimed to “comply with the law” – including surveillance law – in each of the 170 countries in which it operated.
That prompted one MP, Labour’s Graham Stringer, to ask whether Huawei should be compared with IG Farben, a German chemicals giant that manufactured poison gas used in by the Nazis to kill Jews and others in the Holocaust. The Huawei executive said he was not able to respond to that.