I have wanted to write this blog-post for a long time. What stopped me was the work on my next novel. Plus, I had trouble unbundling a host of conflicting views on China.
As a huaqiao (华侨), an overseas Chinese in Malaysia, I grew up with some aspects of Chinese culture, but have no ties to the mainland.
Despite my father’s best efforts, I never felt especially Chinese. I’m proud to have inherited Chinese culture, of course, with its richness and four-thousand-year history. When I watched the opening of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, my heart was full.
At the same time, China has always been a foreign country. I’ve only been there once (in 2011). It was enjoyable as a holiday, but the visit brought up a sense of disconnection. Beyond a few genes and an obsessive work ethic, I did not have much in common with the mainland Chinese.
And now, when I’m surrounded by tourists from China, I have the urge to get away. Unlike the Japanese, mainland visitors aren’t exactly known for unfailing politeness.
What worries me even more is China’s twentieth century history: the Long March from corrupt and failing feudal state to corrupt and ruthless authoritarian state.
You could say that the past is the past and what has already happened doesn’t matter. Alas, this isn’t the case. Through the historical research I did for my books, I learned first-hand how present-day Malaysia continues to be directly affected by its past.
And as long as China is intent on expanding beyond its borders, China’s past will shape our present – yours and mine – whether or not we like it.
Unfortunately, China displays many of the characteristics fictionalised in classic dystopian novels. Take ‘1984’, the famous novel by George Orwell. In ‘1984’ Britain has fallen under the rule of an authoritarian power. The ‘Party’ exerts total control over the British population through a Ministry of Truth, which writes propaganda and erases inconvenient facts. A force known as the ‘Thought Police’ persecutes anyone brave enough to challenge the Party’s views. There’s also a dreaded place called Room 101. In Room 101, your worst nightmares come true: you undergo ‘re-education’.
China has subtler versions of all the above. China’s methods are possibly even more insidious because its citizens appear to have freedom. We mustn’t be deluded, however. China has long been adept at policing ideas. And in the Internet age its censorship capabilities are second to none. The Great Firewall blocks all web sites that the Communist Party deems pesky or potentially troublesome.
Re-education camps have been given a new lease of life in Xinjiang province. The Chinese government first denied the existence of the Xinjiang camps and then, in a change of heart, gave the camps a creative euphemism. Apparently, they exist to provide ‘vocational skills and training’.
There’s also the question of missing citizens. People disappear in China, as they do in ‘1984’. The former head of Interpol – a Chinese national – is a recent victim, alongside the others on this list. And these are only the celebrities.
On June 28, 2018 the National Intelligence Law took effect in the People’s Republic. This gives the authorities wonderfully sweeping powers. Here’s an example of what they can do: ‘monitor and investigate foreign and domestic individuals and institutions’. Talk about broad.
We finally come to Huawei (华为), the mainland Chinese telecommunications company whose phones I’m not going to be buying anytime soon. Remember the start of this post, where I said that I was a huaqiao, an overseas Chinese? Hua refers to China, and Huawei’s name means ‘acting on behalf of China’.
Huawei makes mobile phones as well as the ‘kit’ sitting in cellular networks. By ‘kit’, I’m referring to the technical gear – things like switches, routers and location registers – needed to provide the seamless experience that smartphone users today expect.
According to Wikipedia, Huawei’s revenues last year exceeded US$105 billion. Not bad for a company only founded in 1987. Huawei’s founder is an engineer. His name is Ren Zhengfei. A very clever man, obviously. And with excellent connections, too: his former employer is the People’s Liberation Army.
Huawei likes to say that it is employee-owned and independent of both the Chinese government and military. It’s certainly true that the firm is owned by its employees.
As for its vaunted independence, let’s imagine the following scenario. You are the boss of Huawei. Your company is a big player in a one-party state; in fact, Huawei is a national champion. Britain is about to upgrade its cellular networks. Huawei bids and wins a contract. Your President is delighted. He wants your team to plant special equipment into the British cellular network that your team will be working on. This is important, he tells you. For security reasons, the Chinese government needs backdoor access to Britain’s communications flows.
What do you do? Say ‘No’?
I don’t think so.
The above is a hypothetical situation I made up. I’m not saying it has happened. But can I imagine it happening? Absolutely. And by the way, the new National Intelligence Law would make it easier. This is why Australia has banned both Huawei and ZTE, another mainland company, from bidding on the next generation of cellular networks. I only wish European countries would stop pussy-footing around and do the same.
To be clear, technology provides surveillance tools for all governments. We have challenges in democratic countries, too. The big differences here are the checks and balances and open debate you’ll find in democracies. Sometimes, there’s possibly too much debate: look at Britain today. To our critics I’ll say this: yes, democracy is messy. If you want neat, go to Saudi Arabia.
The author of yet another illuminating article actually visited the Huawei campus in China. He describes being shown a map on a wall measuring 4 yards by 6 yards (roughly 3.5 by 5.5 metres). The map is of Guangdong, a city in southern China where some of my ancestors came from. The Huawei map is dotted by thousands of lights. It must have looked like an abstract painting except, of course, the lights are not art. Each light belongs to a Huawei smartphone that is tracked 24-7 and is correlated with the phone user’s online purchases, social media posts and goodness knows what else.
The information goes to China’s Ministry of State Security. The Ministry knows where a smartphone user is at all times. It knows when the person is eating out, who the person is eating with, sleeping with and probably when they shit, too. If you criticised the Communist Party or the Chinese government online, the Ministry would certainly know.
Such information flows are being further commingled. China has installed high-resolution video cameras, at 100 metre intervals, in major cities. These Chinese video cameras have facial recognition software powered with chips from – guess who?
You got it. Huawei. Acting for China, remember?
I, for one, would not go anywhere near a Huawei phone. I don’t want Huawei or ZTE kit in our networks, either, even if it means that our next generation of mobile services will be more expensive. The risk of having any of our data unwittingly handed over to a totalitarian government with no moral compass is just not worth taking. Our freedoms and our rights, our very democracy, have been hard-won. These things are priceless. We must defend and protect them.
If all else fails, I’ll go back to a dumbphone. From Nokia.