Bad news keeps piling up for Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei. Last week an employee was arrested in Poland on espionage charges. This week, the company's products, which include both phones and network gear, were banned from Taiwanese government systems, the South China Morning Post reported, over concerns that Huawei could build backdoors into its products on behalf of the Chinese government. To top it off, US prosecutors have launched a criminal investigation into accusations that Huawei stole intellectual property from T-Mobile and other companies, The Wall Street Journal reports.
Taiwan's decision follows Australia's announcement last year that it will ban the country's carriers from buying equipment for next-generation 5G networks from Huawei and other Chinese telecom companies over fears of government ties. Huawei is already effectively barred from selling equipment or phones in the US.
Huawei’s escalating troubles come amid sharply rising tensions between the US and China over trade, intellectual property, and geopolitics. Some of the suspicions about Huawei’s connections to the Chinese government go back years, but the recent spate of arrests, bans, and complaints is new.
"These Huawei problems have been bubbling under the surface for quite a few years," telecom industry analyst Jeff Kagan says. "Now they are at a rapid boil, and there is no hiding from it. And this rapid boil is only going to get worse."
In a rare press conference Tuesday, Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei said the company doesn't spy on behalf of the Chinese government. "I support the Communist Party of China, but I will never do anything to harm any other nation," Ren said, according to The Wall Street Journal .
The big question is whether these are temporary setbacks, or if they mark a global retreat that will knock Huawei from its perch as the world's largest seller of telecommunications gear.
Some of Huawei’s problems stem not from countries deciding not to do business with it, but from allegedly selling equipment to Iran, which is forbidden by US sanctions. Last month, Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, who is also Ren's daughter, was arrested in Canada for defrauding financial institutions about Huawei’s relationship to an apparent subsidiary that sold equipment to Iran. She's awaiting extradition to the US.
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The consequences for violating sanctions against Iran can be severe. Last year, another Chinese telecom giant, ZTE, announced that it would halt its operations after the US Department of Commerce banned US companies from doing business with ZTE because of its sales to Iran. The US ultimately decided to drop the ban, saving ZTE, but the company still had to agree to pay a $900 million fine (on top of an earlier $1 billion fine), replace its entire board and senior leadership, and allow a team of US "compliance coordinators" to monitor its compliance with US trade laws.
The fact that the US wasn't willing to ban American companies from doing business with ZTE suggests it won't be willing to ban sales to Huawei either. But US officials appear to be taking a harder line against Huawei than ZTE: No ZTE executives were arrested.
Analysts say Huawei isn't as vulnerable as ZTE. "Huawei is more financially stable than ZTE was," says industry consultant Chetan Sharma. "And Huawei is less dependent on the handset business than ZTE." Plus, Huawei's handset business is less dependent on technology from US companies than ZTE is, Sharma says.
For example, Huawei is building its own alternative to Google's Android operating system; US-based Qualcomm dominates the market for high-end mobile chips, but Huawei could buy from other suppliers, such as Samsung in South Korea. Meanwhile, the Chinese government is trying to kick-start the domestic chip industry through its $20 billion Integrated Circuit Industry Investment Fund.
But being able to survive doesn't mean that tougher US sanctions against Huawei wouldn't damage the company, especially if more countries end up banning Huawei's equipment. Losing access to big markets like Germany or India would be particularly bad for the company.
The good news for Huawei is that even countries that block it from building new networks will likely still have to rely on the company to maintain their 4G networks under existing contracts, Sharma says. "These things don't happen overnight, they happen over the space of years," he says.
The bad news is that it's going to be extremely hard for Huawei to repair its image abroad, and much of its future is in the hands of the Chinese government. There's little more Huawei itself can do to build trust. Huawei already allows the UK government to inspect its source code for backdoors, for example, but last month the chief of the UK's secret intelligence service, Alex Younger, said deciding whether to allow Huawei to build the country's infrastructure would be a difficult choice, The New York Times reported in December.
Sharma says a decline in cyberattacks originating from China, along with reform of the country's intellectual property rules—a major concern in the Trump administration's trade negotiations with China—could go a long way toward repairing the relationship between Chinese companies and the rest of the world. But Kagan isn't so optimistic.
"I don't think it can be corrected," Kagan says. "The only way Huawei gets through this is if some customers and countries decide they don’t care.”
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