Huawei’s connections to the Chinese military and state-security apparatus have raised the hackles of American intelligence officers and politicians since 2005, when a congressional report noted that “industrial espionage is an active tool of China’s strategy for technological development.” So why is this story blowing up now?
The easy answer is to look at Huawei itself. The company has shown tremendous growth and innovation capability, becoming the market leader in some types of wireless-infrastructure equipment. Wireless infrastructure is more important than it used to be, too.
But there is an American side to this battle over control of the global internet infrastructure—and it’s not purely based in security concerns. Beginning six years ago, when Edward Snowden revealed the extent of American internet surveillance, and then through the downward spiral of trust in Facebook, accelerating in the aftermath of the 2016 election, and expressed most purely in recent antipathy toward Uber, the tech industry is no longer America’s darling. There was a tech mythology centered on the salutary power of innovation, and it collapsed.
Already, tech appears to be exacerbating inequality. Long term, artificial intelligence could multiply that impact.
Now, no matter what your politics, it’s good politics to punch the tech industry. Some Democratic presidential candidates are pushing to break up big tech companies, and President Trump is collecting social-media grievances.
So what’s a highly profitable industry to do?
American tech needs a new narrative about its importance to the nation, and there is no better position for the companies than as the stalwart defenders against our greatest geopolitical rival, China. The greater the frenzy about Huawei and the Chinese tech challenge, the better for a challenged industry.
The Chinese threat helps the tech industry answer tough questions that have been raised about its impact on Western democracies.
Worried about tech’s surveillance of your everyday activities? Well, the Chinese have an even more invasive surveillance system.
Don’t like the (near-)monopolistic position that tech companies have in their core markets? If you hurt American Big Tech, you’re only opening up the field for Chinese entrants.
Want to break up Facebook? Its toughest challenger since Snapchat, the beloved new social-media app TikTok, is owned by a Chinese company, ByteDance.
Want to ratchet up the congressional pressure on tech companies to give far-right viewpoints stronger oversight? Tech can point to the Chinese government, which is known to censor and shape political discourse online, as a kind of anti-pattern, the bottom at the end of the interventionist slippery slope.
Worried about the breakneck developments in AI and their deployment across the national-security apparatus? But the Chinese. But the Chinese! But the Chinese!?