The U.K. Is Souring on Huawei. What Comes Next?

China's export business model is faltering under a pandemic for which it is partially to blame.

It’s strange to think of now, but only months ago China seemed to be enjoying a period of great diplomatic strength. For decades, as the Chinese economy enjoyed explosive growth, the world had become addicted to Chinese manufacturing and, in recent years, to Chinese consumer markets. As the Chinese became indispensable to other nation’s economies, their leaders used that leverage to export their own political aims—pressuring Hollywood studios to keep unflattering political narratives out of big-budget movies, say, or coercing U.S. sports leagues to operate as de-facto censors of anti-CCP sentiments, or enticing Silicon Valley companies to help them build out a censored version of the internet.

China was as authoritarian toward its people and as dishonest in its dealings with other nations as it had ever been, but it didn’t seem to matter: The Chinese had bought themselves a seat at the international big kids table, and everyone else was just going to have to live with it.  

Then coronavirus hit. As the pandemic raced around the world, it quickly became apparent that the Chinese government bore much responsibility—if not for the disease itself, then the nothing-to-see-here propaganda that downplayed the deadliness of the virus for months. Nations that had bet on being business partners with a country that didn’t share their values got a bitter reminder of the consequences of that decision as the death toll climbed.

The result has been a global souring of attitudes against China, with governments around the world considering whether unconditional engagement with the CCP has turned out to be a Faustian bargain. Perhaps the clearest indicator of how far Western attitudes have shifted is the United Kingdom’s renewed debate over whether to permit Chinese telecom giant Huawei to build its next-generation 5G data infrastructure.  

Back in January, this seemed to be a done deal. For months, the U.S. had pressured Boris Johnson’s Tory government to keep Huawei out of its 5G plans, arguing that its inclusion would enable the CCP to spy on U.K. data, including sensitive government intelligence, at will. But those efforts were in vain: Johnson announced January 28 that the Chinese corporation would be permitted to build and operate a huge portion of the network. He insisted Huawei would be kept out of “core” areas and prevented from purchasing a controlling market share in the network—two face-saving stipulations that experts say would do little to alleviate security concerns.

Why did Johnson agree to the deal? Because of the power of the tried-and-true Chinese strategy: Offer a windfall, then threaten to take your ball and go home. Huawei’s heavy government subsidies allowed it to offer Britain 5G coverage cheaper and faster than its competitors, while the Chinese government threatened that the U.K. would see a substantial loss of Chinese investment should it freeze out Huawei.

Johnson’s plan, however, was only an agreement in principle—the British parliament still needs to vote on the package later this year. And growing dissent from within Johnson’s own party has put the outcome of that vote in serious doubt. During a procedural vote on the issue last month, 38 Conservative MPs broke ranks to vote against the agreement. And their protests have only grown louder as the evidence of China’s bad behavior in the coronavirus pandemic has grown clearer.  

“I think the mood in the parliamentary party has hardened,” Tom Tugendhat, the influential Conservative chair of the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee who has spearheaded Tory resistance to the Huawei deal, told reporters last week.

The citizens’ mood has hardened, too: A recent poll from the conservative Henry Jackson Society found that a plurality of British adults now oppose Huawei having a role in the U.K.’s 5G network, including a majority of Conservative voters.

The think tank’s executive director, Alan Mendoza, told The Dispatch that, while the security concerns of Huawei predate the pandemic, “the coronavirus situation has given it all a shot in the arm, because it reminded everyone that China is not a partner in the sense that some people would have liked to imagine it could have been.”

The result is that it’s now unclear whether the Johnson government will have the votes to approve the Huawei deal—or if in fact it still wants to move forward with it. There have been conflicting signals on this point: One senior U.K. official recently told lawmakers that he believed the Huawei decision was “firm” and “not being reopened,” while another warned that the U.K. would be unable to go back to “business as usual” with China after the end of the coronavirus crisis.

According to Mendoza, that rethinking is likely to extend far beyond the fight over the Huawei deal.

“Britain has of course traditionally been at the very far edge of the globalization debate: always pushing for more trade, always a champion of free trade, always trying to push the boundaries in that sense,” he said. “But this pandemic has, I think, reminded people that there may be limits to this—and not only limits, but we may have to claw back some of the manufacturing capabilities that we’ve lost for some time and bring some key areas back home—or at least find alternative sourcing closer to home.”

If the U.K. moves in a more aggressive direction on China, the British are unlikely to be alone. Other Western leaders, including France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel, have signaled in recent days that their patience with the CCP is wearing thin.

“The one thing we do know,” U.S. congressman Mike Gallagher told The Dispatch, “is that the hawkish position on China in both parties is going to be the ascendant position.”

“Tony Blair had a famous saying,” Mendoza said. “He said we have shaken the kaleidoscope, and now we must reorder the pieces before they set. This is essentially what the coronavirus has done. The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The question now is how do the pieces set.”

Photograph by Han Yan/Xinhua/Getty Images.