The World

Boris Johnson’s Bad Bet on China

The controversy around Huawei shows you can’t benefit from the Chinese economy without acquiescing to Chinese politics.

Boris Johnson looks down at a smartphone with his glasses on and a pensive expression.
Boris Johnson in London in 2016.
Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

It was an odd juxtaposition. At a NATO summit in London on Dec. 4, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised he would keep the controversial Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei away from Britain’s 5G network if it jeopardized the United Kingdom’s work with its intelligence-sharing partners, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. “I don’t want this country to be unnecessarily hostile to investment from overseas but, on the other hand, we cannot prejudice our vital national security interests,” Johnson said. Then, perhaps fearing he had ventured too far, less than 24 hours later Johnson pulled out a phone and took a selfie with two TV anchors—a Huawei phone.

Though his staff later claimed the phone didn’t belong to him, the incident got wide coverage in British press. The British government will reportedly announce how to handle Huawei after the Dec. 12 election, which pits the widely reviled Johnson and his Conservatives against his widely reviled challenger Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. Corbyn, who is unlikely to win, has spoken little about China or how to deal with state-backed companies like Huawei.

But Johnson, in his more than a decade in the public eye, has a long track record on China. Johnson seems to believe he has a brilliant solution that policymakers elsewhere have missed: by acknowledging the political and security risks of a close economic relationship with China, London can then overlook those risks in favor of trade. “China is a rival,” Johnson said in a leaked June 2018 recording, while he was foreign secretary, “but China is a rival whose growth and whose incredible developing power can be used to our advantage.” On the one hand, he said in the same recording, Britain should “treat China as our friend and our partner,” on the other hand, “they will try to stiff us.” Johnson seems to believe the United Kingdom can benefit from China economically while not acquiescing to it politically—to have its cake and eat it too, as the prime minister is fond of saying.

This position is naïve. It ignores the most important reality of a Chinese Communist Party–controlled China: Politics always trumps economics. Building a trade relationship isolated from a political relationship is a lovely ambition, but Beijing’s Leninist political system precludes it. “No part of the Communist Chinese state is ultimately able to operate free of the control exercised by its Communist Party leadership. This is a simple statement of fact,” writes Richard Dearlove, the former head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, in the foreword to a critical May 2019 report on the risks of Huawei in the British system, “and no amount of sophistry can alter it.”

The debate over Huawei typifies the British government’s China myopia. Founded in 1987 by the former army engineer and Party member Ren Zhengfei, the telecoms giant has always had close links to the party. Ren’s management thinking naturally carries “very deep imprints of the Communist Party culture,” according to a 2017 Chinese book based on more than 100 interviews with top Huawei executives, and written by a friend of Ren’s. The U.S. and other governments have long been suspicious of Huawei’s ability to act as a proxy for Beijing; in 2012 the House Intelligence Committee called Huawei a national security threat and the U.S. government, and in August 2018 President Donald Trump signed a law de facto banning government agencies from using Huawei products.

In December 2018 Canadian police, at Washington’s request, arrested Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s CFO and Ren’s daughter, on charges related to sanctions violations in Iran. Tensions between the two superpowers spiked. London attempted to seesaw between the United States, Britain’s largest trading partner and most important ally—potentially an even more important one post-Brexit—and the rising economic power of China. In April, embattled then–Prime Minister Theresa May reportedly decided to allow Huawei to build noncore elements of Britain’s 5G network. Then, after the U.S. government condemned the move, the British government announced it hadn’t yet decided and May fired Defense Minister Gavin Williamson, blaming him for leaking the decision (he denied the charge).

This hedging stretches back to 2010, when British security officials reportedly began noticing unusual “chattering”—communicating data to unknown sources—in Huawei equipment used in the country. That year, the British intelligence service GCHQ partnered with Huawei to establish the Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre, also known as the Cell. The Cell is supposed to inspect Huawei equipment for malicious code. Huawei funds the Cell, and most of the employees are from Huawei. Despite this sponsorship, the Cell’s latest annual report, from March 2019,  states that it can “only provide limited assurance” that Huawei does not jeopardize U.K. national security. And then, in May of this year, Huawei Chairman Liang Hua absurdly offered to “sign a no-spy agreement” to placate London.

If Huawei is trustworthy, why does it need to be monitored? And if it’s duplicitous, how would a “no-spy agreement” constrain it? “It is far easier to place a hidden backdoor inside a system than it is to find one,” writes the former British diplomat Charles Parton in a February 2019 paper. “In the likely, but unacknowledged, battle between Chinese cyber attackers and the UK’s Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre, the advantage and overwhelming resources lie with the former.” It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Cell strengthens rather than weakens Huawei’s ability to harm British national security.

A well-connected senior member of a prestigious British think tank faults the 2010–2016 Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, who in September 2015 publicly advised Britain to “run towards China.” Under Osborne’s influence, in 2015 the United Kingdom became the first major Western country to join Beijing’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (despite “a very hostile briefing from the Obama White House telling us not to do it,” a former adviser to the British treasury told me.) Former Prime Minister David Cameron, who launched what he called a “golden era” of relations between Britain and China, resigned in June 2016 after the Brexit vote and tried to raise a fund to invest in projects with China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Embarrassingly, he failed.

Johnson has played his part as well. In 2008, four years before London hosted the Summer Olympics, then-Mayor Johnson joked in Beijing that “ping pong was invented on the dining tables of England in the 19th century and it was called wiff waff.” Or, as he joked in 2013 after announcing a Chinese company would refurbish the Port of London Authority building, which stands in for the offices of the spy agency MI6 in the James Bond film Skyfall, “if that isn’t openness to China, I don’t know what is.” He added, “we have sold you our offices of the secret service. Saves time, I imagine.”

Research for this article was made possible with the support of the Heinrich Boell Foundation North America.