Chinese cybersecurity law is a ‘loaded weapon,’ senior US official says

Visitors walks pass the Huawei stand during the second day of Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, northeastern Spain, 26 February 2019. The MWC, running until 28 February, brings the lastest mobile innovations and leading-edge technology from more than 2,400 companies. [EPA-EFE/TONI ALBIR]

China’s cybersecurity law allows the state to conduct foreign espionage projects, and its legislation is comparable to a “loaded gun” that the rest of the world should not want to stand in front of, a senior US official told EURACTIV on Wednesday (26 February). But Chinese officials were adamant that this was not the case.

“The Chinese government isn’t playing hide the ball on the issue of cyber espionage,” the US official said, speaking under strict conditions of anonymity on the sidelines of Barcelona’s Mobile World Congress.

“Their cyber security law obliges Chinese companies to collaborate with the Communist government on espionage campaigns.”

Not 'one single cybersecurity issue', Huawei says

A senior Huawei representative said on Monday (25 February) that there has never been one legitimate “cyber security issue” with the company. The statement came as EU Digital Commissioner Mariya Gabriel said that 5G security is a “priority”.

Controversy has surrounded China’s cybersecurity law since its inception in 2017, with many critics claiming that it forces telecommunications companies to hand over data at the behest of the Chinese government.

General condemnation of the legal instrument is centred on Article 28 of the Chinese cybersecurity law, which states that:

“Network operators shall provide technical support and assistance to public security organs and national security organs that are safeguarding national security and investigating criminal activities in accordance with the law.”

EURACTIV pressed the US official as to any evidence that Washington may have unearthed in the ongoing debate over the allegations of a government backdoor within the Chinese telecoms company, Huawei. The US claims that the company is able to collaborate in espionage campaigns because of the provisions afforded by Chinese law.

No evidence has yet been disclosed as to these allegations and it appears that the entire debate hinges on a legal interpretation of the Chinese cybersecurity law. The US official was unfazed.

“The Chinese cybersecurity law allows the government to force Chinese companies to spy on their behalf,” the US official said.

“We’ve heard people ask us ‘where’s the smoking gun,’ but the better question is ‘why would we stand in front of a loaded weapon?’”

Barcelona the battleground as Huawei set to face off against US

US officials are set to descend on Barcelona this weekend ahead of Monday’s opening of the Mobile World Congress, where Chinese telecoms giant Huawei will look to substantiate its presence in the 5G European market despite rising global security concerns over its operation.

EURACTIV caught up with President of Huawei’s Western European Region, Vincent Pang, on Wednesday and asked him to respond to the claims coming from the US.

“I still remember when Ren Zhengfei, CEO and founder of Huawei, spoke for the first time to Western media. He responded clearly to these concerns. Zhengfei said that Huawei would never provide data to the Chinese authorities,” Pang said.

“He continued and said that if the Chinese government were to force Huawei to hand over data, then he would shut down the company.”

Meanwhile, Huawei’s rotating chairman, Guo Ping, has been just as unambiguous this week with regards to the backdoor allegations.

“Huawei has not and will never plant backdoors,” he said, delivering a keynote speech at Barcelona.

“And we will never allow anyone else to do so in our equipment.”

The US administration, one of the most vocal critics of Huawei, is represented at this year’s Mobile World Congress by around 20 members.

The administration has in recent weeks been putting pressure on EU regulators to stop Huawei from contributing to the development of the bloc’s 5G infrastructure.

Nevertheless, the word coming out of the EU at the current time is that they will not make any definitive decisions until unambiguous evidence has surfaced as to the allegations surrounding Huawei, with Commission digital chief Mariya Gabriel saying in Barcelona on Monday (25 February) that “nobody is helped by premature decisions based on partial facts”.

At the same time, the chief of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), Ciaran Martin, told a Brussels audience last week that there has yet to be any legitimate proof provided to the British government that Huawei has breached security law.

Britain managing Huawei risks, has no evidence of spying: official

Britain is able to manage the security risks of using Huawei telecoms equipment and has not seen any evidence of malicious activity by the company, a senior official said on Wednesday (20 February), pushing back against U.S. allegations of Chinese state spying.

EURACTIV understands that the US administration is not anticipating an EU-wide approach with regards to Huawei, who have already been kicked out of 5G markets in America and Australia.

With security issues being a national competence, the US expects EU member states to make up their own minds on the allegations.

However, in a move that some may see as trying to sway EU regulators, the US now appears to be conflating security and privacy priorities, which may be seen as a bid to win over many in the EU who are passionate about high consumer data protection standards.

Along this axis, comments made by Assistant Secretary David Redl of the U.S. Department of Commerce during a private ministerial meeting in Barcelona were made available to EURACTIV.

“Simply put, you cannot have true privacy without secure network technology,” he said during the meeting.

“It’s the position of the United States government that privacy and prosperity are not mutually exclusive. We can have real protections for consumers and a thriving market for technologies that use data.”

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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