This has been a (literally) breathtakingly awful year in so many ways that most people are thrilled to see it gone. But do not write off 2020 entirely. With the United States in the lead, much of the world is organizing to roadblock China’s march to dominance in 5G telecommunications. That is, to get China’s spying out of our system – although we are far from done, there is a lot of 2020 to build on in 2021.
Early in 2020, Huawei announced it had 91 commercial 5G contracts outside of China, including 47 in Europe and 20 in Asia. In a countermove in April, the U.S. announced the Clean Network initiative and tightened restrictions on Huawei and, later, the Pentagon banned the company from providing services to the Department of Defense. Most recently, the New York Stock Exchange delisted three companies linked to the Chinese military.
Beijing has inserted itself, often illegally, into American research institutions. And it has also inserted spyware – hardware and software – into computers made in China and exported to the West. In the case of Super Micro Computers, providing services to Amazon, investigators discovered that extra microchips were implanted on boards in Chinese factories by operatives of the People’s Liberation Army.
China’s goal was to broaden its capabilities in domestic spying and its worldwide ability to steal Western technology and, in particular, infiltrate Western defense capabilities. China – which is all about offense – was placing an emphasis on implanting their systems in American defense products. The Pentagon had been buying large numbers of computer motherboards manufactured in China (with those extra chips) – it was a huge contract. However, if DoD in May 2020, had simply cut off purchasing them, the Pentagon would lose computer capability. Telephone technology for American intelligence was the same tele-technology civilians use. Dependency can be as simple as American soldiers in Germany not wanting to stop using TikTok for “personal use” – but China is in there.
America’s goal was to stop them. Ha! You can’t stop China, right? Wrong.
The US Department of State’s Clean Network initiative, according to Forbes,
“includes a commitment to remove untrusted mobile applications from mobile app stores, apps that knowingly violate privacy, introduce viruses, censor content, and spread propaganda and misinformation. It requires that 5G cloud services do not expose user data to Chinese-government enabled companies like Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent. Moreover, it ensures that undersea cables connecting internet are not subverted for mass surveillance.”
In July, the Chinese consulate general in Houston was closed after evidence emerged of illegal activity there. It was a first.
So, where are we? As the year ended, 26 of 27 EU member countries had joined the Clean Network initiative, along with 180 telecom companies and such important tech players as Israel, Japan, Australia, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, India – and Taiwan, which is building a 5 nanometer chip production facility in Arizona to improve America’s ability to produce computer hardware. Partners in South America include Brazil, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic.
The pandemic played a role. Part of the political fallout from China’s handling of the Wuhan Virus (called that here because that is where it came from and is essential to understanding the rest of the story) has been to force people and countries to reconsider what relations with China mean. Whether the virus was released intentionally or not – even if likely not – China’s lies and obfuscation were deliberate and prevented countries from taking steps to control it and combat the virus. What China learned certainly could have helped it in military planning – having watched, for example, the USS Theodore Roosevelt’s reaction to an outbreak, and seen the unpreparedness of American and European cities for a pandemic.
China’s internal response was illuminating as well. For only one example, Dr. Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist, was reportedly punished by police for warning just a few of his friends about a mysterious pneumonia-like disease in December 2019. He is said to have died from the virus, but “less than 90 minutes after his death on Friday morning, the hashtag ‘I want freedom of speech’ was trending on Weibo, a popular blogging site, with nearly 2 million posts. The posts were gone by sunrise.” This initiated, according to NPR, a “chokehold on information.”
China’s repression of those who would report honestly led most recently to the sentencing of a former lawyer, Zhang Zhan, to four years in prison – after seven months of detention – for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” [By that standard, most of America would be in jail.] How many critics are in Chinese prisons? No one really knows, just as no one really knows how many Chinese citizens have been affected by the pandemic and how many have died – China’s control of communications makes it impossible. One might suspect that the number of both is substantially higher than the government will acknowledge.
Furthermore, China’s repression of its Uighur minority has begun to make inroads into the American consciousness – although apparently not yet regarding the NBA, Disney and Hollywood. In addition, the demise of Hong Kong as a democratic city-state, largely unnoticed by the American media, has nevertheless imprinted itself on the consciousness of millions – particularly in the United Kingdom, which had turned Hong Kong over to mainland Chinese rule with a series of “promises” — all broken — from Beijing to respect the democratic government Britain had nurtured, at least until 2047.
There is still an enormous amount of work to be done to get China’s spying out of Western technology and Western defenses. The U.S. National Defense Authorization Act contains a provision to appoint a national cyber-director to look for “cracks in the system.” The cracks should be easy to find; securing our country and our friends and allies will be much harder. The success of the Clean Network, however, is an indication that when the U.S. leads, others will join in for a common benefit.
That is a good note for welcoming 2021.