Earlier today, U.S. Congressional investigators fired their latest shot at Chinese tech companies ZTE and Huawei, saying the companies pose a threat to American telecommunications security. Evidence that will be turned over to the FBI apparently indicates that equipment sold by both companies is stealing data and sending it back to China, although the committee is just passing along allegations of this and apparently didn’t look into it itself. Anyway, the committee recommended that “U.S. government and American firms avoid using equipment from the Chinese firms for tasks that involve large amounts of sensitive data.” It also expressed concern as to why ZTE and Huawei, supposedly private companies, have Communist Party committees within their corporate structure.
Needless to say, ZTE and Huawei were not excited about this, and Huawei has already suggested that the allegations against it are baseless. Many Chinese net users seem to agree. Many see the announcement as a kind of protectionism, although it’s worth mentioning that many Chinese headlines are suggesting implicitly that the U.S. Congressional investigatory committee’s recommendation means the U.S. has banned Huawei and ZTE products (which isn’t actually the case). In one early weibo post that has been retweeted hundreds of times as of this writing, a product manager at one tech site wrote:
Large airplanes, high speed rail, cars, organic medicines, and telecommunications are high-value products, and thus fields that Europe and the U.S. definitely don’t want to allow China to develop. When any Chinese product [in these fields] comes out they will find an agent to manufacture [negative] public opinion, make the problem seem bigger until [the Chinese product] is strangled. There are also many [in China] who make money off the sales of foreign products, so they’ll stand on the front lines of the fight to smother Chinese products. This is the reason that the high-speed rail crash was made into a big deal.
As you might expect, he’s getting a lot of crap for that last line about the high-speed rail crash (as well he should be), but overall, this does seem to be the prevailing sentiment when it comes to the accusations about Huawei and ZTE. A few have pointed out that when it comes to issues of protectionism in tech, perhaps the country that has blocked Facebook, Twitter, and a dozen other hugely popular overseas web services probably shouldn’t be throwing stones. But hypocritical or not, some folks are definitely angry about what they perceive to be the mistreatment of honest Chinese companies at the hands of the U.S. Congress.
Personally, while I sort of sympathize — I too think that Congress sucks — I’m not sure they’re wrong about this. Even without seeing the evidence for Huawei and ZTE products conducting spying, I do think it’s fair to be skeptical about companies with such close government and military ties. If Colin Powell were to found a tech company and begin exporting products to China, I have to imagine China’s reaction would be pretty similar, especially if there was a U.S. political committee as part of the company.
Moreover, much of the reporting and retweeting in China is making this seem like much more than what it actually is: a couple guys on a committee making some allegations in public before passing their investigation on to the actual pros at the FBI. The committee’s report does not speak for the entire Congress, let alone the entire U.S. government or the U.S. as a whole, but it is being perceived and sometimes reported that way on the Chinese web.
Whether there’s much truth to the Congressional report’s allegations remains to be seen. In the interim, though, it will be interesting to see if this news gains enough traction in China to get that country’s nationalists to stop yelling about islands for a little while.