The Strange Saga of Huawei

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This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. Here is a collection of past columns.

You might only be vaguely familiar with Huawei, the large Chinese technology company that has been in the cross hairs of the United States.

Huawei is a test of how the U.S. government is trying to keep the country strong, safe and on the cutting edge as the future of technology becomes less American. Huawei may also be an example of American elected officials’ taking a tough but scattershot stand against China while leaving their own country vulnerable in other ways.

Let me explain more about Huawei, why the United States is squeezing the company and what this all means for Americans and the rest of the world.

Remind me what Huawei does?

Huawei sells smartphones and equipment that help form the backbone of telephone and internet networks. The company started in the late 1980s, and its rise into one of China’s first truly global corporate successes mirrored the country’s economic and technological transformation.

The company has been a magnet for criticism that it ripped off foreign competitors, tried to evade U.S. laws against doing business with Iran and helped leaders in some countries spy on their citizens.

The most serious claim from U.S. government officials is that Huawei is inseparable from China’s Communist Party. The U.S. has said for years that Huawei’s internet equipment could be used as a gateway for Chinese government spying or to sabotage essential parts of the internet in any future conflicts. Huawei has consistently said that those fears are unfounded and that the U.S. government has never provided public proof of its allegations.

The great Huawei crackdown:

Until a couple of years ago, there was a stalemate. In many countries outside the U.S., companies bought a lot of Huawei internet equipment, and people bought a lot of its smartphones. But in the U.S., the government mostly kept Huawei products out.

The Trump administration took two steps that altered the status quo.

First, U.S. officials tried to persuade more countries to keep Huawei internet equipment out of next-generation 5G mobile communications networks. Second, the U.S. imposed sharp limits on Huawei’s ability to buy computer chips and other technology. The Biden administration has more or less continued the policies.

Huawei’s phone sales started to crater as the company couldn’t obtain important components, and some countries have decided not to buy Huawei internet equipment. Huawei’s business is still healthy, but it’s growing sicker. There are other culprits for Huawei’s struggles, but U.S. government policies are a significant factor.

What’s the big deal?

Most Americans probably don’t care about the pains of a foreign company, and hardly anyone in Washington wants to go easier on China or Chinese companies.

But I want Americans to think about whether the policies used against Huawei in our name are the most effective uses of government attention and power.

Samm Sacks, a cyberpolicy specialist with the New America think tank, told me that U.S. policy toward Huawei was all over the place and might be distracting leaders from other vulnerabilities.

She said that keeping Huawei equipment out of the heart of U.S. critical infrastructure might be the right step to secure America’s essential communication networks, but that government officials needed to do much more. Keeping out Huawei hasn’t stopped the growing number of dangerous computer attacks on U.S. corporations and government agencies, hospitals, water systems and energy providers, for example.

U.S. policy could tackle those risks, too, of course. But it has been easier for the U.S. to be tough on China than to address complex problems in its own country.

“Cracking down on Huawei didn’t solve the problem of keeping networks safe and secure,” Sacks said. “I just worry that this is a missed opportunity to put in more robust security standards.”

Plus, she said, why shouldn’t Huawei be permitted to buy parts for smartphones that might be sold in France or for Latin American cellphone towers?

The bigger picture:

For the last half-century, many of the world’s most important technologies were dominated by companies in the U.S. or allied countries. That is starting to change. The TikTok app, from a Chinese internet conglomerate, has grown popular in many countries. (The U.S. tried to ban it over security concerns but dropped those plans.) Chinese companies have ambitions to sell electric vehicles and green energy technology to more of the world.

The U.S. government will have to figure out how to best respond to technology that wasn’t designed inside its borders. Punishing individual companies is not likely to solve everything.

Guess what: On Tech is hosting a virtual event with New York Times subscribers on Thursday, Nov. 18. We’re going to talk with the Reddit chief executive, Steve Huffman; a drag performer, Latrice Royale; and others about the secrets to fun, supportive online communities. You can sign up here.

  • Did your kid actually (gasp!) go outside? Roblox, the video game popular with children, went offline over the Halloween weekend. My colleague Kellen Browning talked to children and parents about what Roblox fans did instead, including speaking to one another and going out of doors.

  • The cultural power of TikTok: The app frequently turns songs into hits. Bloomberg News detailed how a two-year-old tune by the Nigerian musician CKay jumped from TikTok dance routines to one of the most popular tracks across the internet.

  • It’s not “beep beep beep.” Amazon delivery trucks sound vaguely like a dying bird when they back up. The tech publication Input Mag explains the safety science behind that odd sound.

Watch this chameleon and these kitties appear to strut or shimmy in sync with electronic music. (Thanks to my colleague Emily Brennan for recommending this Instagram account, @animalsandsynthesizers.)