In early 2000, I went to Shenzhen to visit Huawei, which, I had been told, was the most interesting company nobody in the West had ever heard of. Thirteen years young, it was already an up-and-coming maker of telecom equipment, with global ambitions. But what interested me and my editors was to what extent Huawei was in cahoots with the Communist Party and the Chinese state. As everybody knew, it had been founded by a former officer of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Ren Zhengfei. What nobody knew was what, if anything, that entailed.
It was a bizarre, even eerie, visit. I was driven to a sprawling campus, then through checkpoints. The PR man was pleasant, but the tour through endless and spotless server farms, like the comically jargon-laden Powerpoint presentation, appeared designed to awe and intimidate rather than elucidate. I tried several times to ask about existing contacts to the PLA, the Party, the government. Each time I was inundated with useless information. Eventually I gave up in exhaustion. I never wrote the article I had pitched.
That was then; this is now. Today’s Huawei strikes a different tone. This week it invited journalists, including German ones, into its labs. Mr. Ren himself, now aged 75, has been giving interviews. Huawei would never, ever, harm its customers, he avers.
His anxiety is understandable. Huawei, alongside America’s Qualcomm, is one of the leading suppliers in the coming transition to fifth-generation (5G) wireless networks. But more and more Western countries have concluded that it, being Chinese, could build espionage “backdoors” into the new systems, and are blocking it from participating.
The US has banned Huawei for years, and now wants to prosecute Mr. Ren’s daughter, who was detained in Canada for extradition during a visit. Australia and New Zealand are also shutting Huawei out; countries from Japan to Norway are thinking about it. Poland just arrested a Huawei employee on suspicion of espionage. And Germany? Its 5G auction starts tomorrow. It needs to figure this out.
It is not a straightforward decision. The instinct of liberals like me is to separate politics and business as much as possible. If Huawei makes equipment that is cheaper, better or both, it deserves to win bids. But even liberals cannot afford naïveté. That applies whether the subject is Russia and the Nord Stream 2 pipeline (which should be stopped), or China’s vast “One Belt One Road” initiative in infrastructure, or the coming floods of 5G wireless data.
The reality is that China itself admits no separation between politics and business, and takes an illiberal view toward technology. Unlike Western democracies, the Communist Party has no qualms about setting up a gigantic and quasi-totalitarian surveillance infrastructure. It already uses this at home to censor and to persecute. It would not hesitate to use it abroad to bully or undermine other countries.
But simply blocking Chinese firms like Huawei wholesale would be both unfair and unwise. Unfair, because there is no proof that Mr. Ren’s firm has ever in fact spied. Unwise, because it would feed a Chinese narrative of centuries-long Western hypocrisy and hostility. The better way is to take Huawei up on its offer. Let it open its labs, its books, and its code to the West, not once, but permanently. Let it answer suspicion with radical transparency. With luck, even the Communist cadres in Beijing will eventually notice that this approach, not their authoritarianism, is the enlightened way forward.