Huawei fights back against attacks over Britain’s 5G

Huawei will launch a fightback on Monday to try to preserve its role in Britain’s 5G networks, urging Boris Johnson not to “overestimate the risk of security and forget the economic impact” of delaying the rollout of full-fibre broadband.

After weeks of mounting attacks by Conservative MPs and by the government in Washington, the Chinese telecoms equipment provider has decided to respond publicly, embarking on an advertising campaign that stresses the company’s commitment to Britain over the past 20 years.

Huawei vice-president Victor Zhang insisted in an interview with the Financial Times that the Chinese group was not controlled by Beijing and claimed it was a private company 100 per cent owned by its employees “similar to the John Lewis model”.

But senior Tory MP Tom Tugendhat has described Huawei as a “dragon in the nest”, while Washington argues that the company’s equipment is a security risk that could let the west’s secrets fall into Beijing’s hands.

Mr Zhang warned that Britain’s economy would suffer billions of pounds of lost growth as it tried to recover from “the challenge of Brexit and now Covid-19” if Huawei’s equipment was removed from the country’s 5G networks and fixed line fibre networks.

“We need to realise how to manage and mitigate the risk from security rather than overestimate the risk of security and forget the economic impact,” he said, adding that the company was working with Britain’s security services to address concerns.

Mr Johnson is under pressure from Washington and Tory MPs to exclude Huawei, even though the company’s equipment is integral to his efforts to deliver gigabit broadband to the whole country by 2025.

Last week Mr Johnson’s National Security Council agreed to work with so-called “five eyes” partners — the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — to develop alternatives to Huawei.

But Rishi Sunak, chancellor, and Alok Sharma, business secretary, urged Mr Johnson at the meeting to take a “transactional” approach to China — balancing a tough stance towards Beijing with Britain’s economic needs.

China’s response to the coronavirus crisis and its proposed security law for Hong Kong have heightened tensions between London and Beijing in recent weeks. HSBC is among the British companies warning ministers of the damage to business if relations worsen further.

Meanwhile, Huawei’s PR push got off to a difficult start when the Wall St Journal obtained a transcript in which Ren Zhengfei, the company’s founder, told research staff in 2018 to emulate Google’s push for world dominance, saying: “Surge forward, killing as you go, to blaze us a trail of blood.”

But Mr Zhang said his company had “grown up” in Britain and was “committed to improving connectivity to everyone in the UK”.

“There are still lots of people, including the public, politicians and officials in government who wrongly see Huawei as a state-owned company,” he said. “That’s not right. We are a private company.”

He added: “We want to tell the people, the UK needs to have the best possible technology for their gigabit broadband. I’m still very confident the UK government will opt for a solution based on the facts and evidence.”

Mr Johnson last week described himself as a “Sinophile”, but he is under intense pressure to take a tougher line towards Beijing.

An emergency review was last month launched by the National Cyber Security Centre, a branch of GCHQ, into the use of Huawei equipment — days after Washington placed new export controls on the company aimed at choking off its access to the supply of semiconductors designed and manufactured using US equipment.

The new review came little more than three months after the government decided to allow the limited use of Huawei kit in Britain’s telecoms networks, despite US authorities urging a total ban.

The government set a strict limit of 35 per cent on the amount of Huawei equipment that could be used in the country’s mobile and broadband networks and banned it from the “core” — the central network where customer data is processed — with a 2023 timeline to comply.

The new review, expected to report in July, could mean that the NCSC deems that the risks of using new Huawei equipment with Chinese-made chips is too high to allow it to be used for new 5G equipment.

That would force telecoms companies to halt their upgrade of mobile networks in order to source equipment from the Chinese company’s rivals. Mr Zhang said the company would work closely with the NCSC to resolve the issue.

With mobile networks BT, Vodafone and Three all using Huawei for early 5G networks, a change in policy would potentially slow the full rollout of the new technology by up to two years, as telecoms companies redrew their plans and sourced new kit, according to the industry trade body Mobile UK.