When the world’s top athletes arrived in Beijing for the Winter Olympics, the coal-fueled smog had been cleared, but there was still a cloud hanging over the Olympic Village. Despite the desire to tweet and post to Instagram and Facebook, the athletes had been warned by security experts that their devices are vulnerable to Chinese hacking, compromise, infection.
Many followed the guidance and left their devices at home. Others brought “burner” phones to the games, using these disposable devices while connected to China’s networks and then discarding them when they leave. But this may not be as safe a plan as they think. Any access to email or social media accounts—or bank accounts and other connections—via China’s networks presents the opportunity for interception and compromise of usernames and passwords, giving foreign intelligence operatives visibility to activities long after the closing ceremonies are over, and they have returned home. The athletes have also been warned—by no less than Human Rights Watch—not to speak out on human rights issues, either from the podium or on their personal social media platforms.
Why should an Olympian, especially one living in a free country, be concerned about intrusion and oversight from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)? The NBA’s recent experiences around sports figures being punished for statements contrary to CCP doctrine—costing some teams and players millions—provide a warning about the dangers facing even non-political figures.
The visiting athletes are being kept in a “bubble” to avoid spreading Covid-19 to outside citizens, which some have complained denies them the traditional opportunity to experience the host country’s cultural values. But they are wrong. These strict policies give them a small taste of what it is like to live as a citizen of China, subject to the CCP’s authoritarian surveillance policies and thought control.
China’s scrutiny of the Olympic Village serves as a model for what is happening in the rest of the world too, at least in those parts of the world now using telecom systems from Huawei, ZTE, and other Chinese vendors. While much progress has been made to prevent untrusted equipment from being deployed, many countries still have high-risk technology in their networks and continue to be vulnerable to techno-authoritarian threats. These countries know that the actions they are taking to secure their privacy may not be enough to keep them safe or to support their desires to use modern tech without sacrificing their security or sovereignty.
Over the past twenty years, the CCP has backed national telecom equipment champions who took on the world's leading suppliers: Lucent/Bell Laboratories, Motorola, and Nortel in the United States and Canada; Alcatel, Nokia, and Ericsson in France, Finland, and Sweden. Over that period, little-known companies like Huawei and ZTE grew to replace and effectively bankrupt nearly all these companies, with Huawei alone growing from start-up to a $130 billion behemoth with more than 50 percent share of the world's 5G deployments and more smartphone sales than Apple or Samsung. Now, only Nokia and Ericsson remain, competing to deploy 5G networks against Chinese companies with world-class technology and seemingly no bottom to their pricing.
What is China hoping to achieve through these telecommunication companies? One thing has become clear: Beijing is not simply trying to establish its local champions as the top vendors of equipment. No economic business case justifies the $75 billion in subsidies (according to the Wall Street Journal’s investigations) that China has delivered to Huawei alone. Given the decades it took to turn that investment into near ownership of the market, there is no way the company—or country—can ever make that money back through hiked prices or increased sales volume.
No, China’s real interest in that top-priority program has been to insinuate itself into the critical communications of as many countries as it can. With Chinese-made network equipment deployed worldwide, every city is an Olympic Village, with no communications safe from the prying eyes of China’s Ministry of State Security. As one advisor to Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump put it, “If Huawei is allowed to deploy their equipment into our 5G networks, they won’t need a back door; they can use the front door.”
To elaborate further, China has exfiltrated data from the African Union headquarters, which was built with Chinese money and equipment and was later found to be delivering sensitive business, military, and political information to servers in Shenzhen. In the United States, China Unicom was just declared a threat to national security and banned last month while Huawei has evaded its ban on selling equipment to U.S. cellular carriers by deploying equipment into cell towers to gather information from America’s nuclear missile bases, including Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana.
However, recent developments offer hope that China’s technological victory is not so inevitable, and the world does not belong to totalitarians. The emergence of a new trust-based model for advancing freedom is a beacon of light for the next generation. Remarkably, almost no one outside of government knows about it.
This new trust-based model is called the Clean Network. The Clean Network was started by the Trump administration in 2020 to champion democratic values such as transparency, accountability, reciprocity, respect for the rule of law, human rights, labor practices, and the environment. So far, it has attracted sixty “Clean Countries,” representing two-thirds of the world’s gross domestic product, more than 200 Clean Telcos, and dozens of industry-leading Clean Companies in a global alliance of like-minded partners committed to only using trusted vendors in their 5G infrastructure. As former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster has said, “The Clean Network’s defeat of the Chinese Communist Party’s master plan to control 5G communications was the first time a government-lead initiative proved that China’s economic warfare is beatable.” Robert Hormats, under secretary of state in the Obama administration, added that “The Clean Network’s success in countering China’s 5G plan serves as a powerful, nonpartisan model for rallying our allies, leveraging the private sector, and amplifying democratic values based on trust.” Harvard Business School credited the initiative for changing the future of global technology competition.
But the struggle to keep out untrusted gear showed China’s willingness to bully customers, whether they were developing countries with little political leverage or economic powerhouses like Germany, which saw threats to block auto sales into China if the equipment bans weren’t lifted. Across the world, China has flexed its muscle, using tools like crushing loan obligations and the withholding of critical supplies to compel sovereign nations to accept its bidding. So, while Russia masses troops on the Ukrainian border, China achieves its geopolitical goals without sending an army or firing a shot. The reach of its network deployments marks a neo-imperialism that is insidious in that the victims don’t realize they are being colonized--until it’s too late.
We believe the tide is turning. Citizens of the world have woken up to the truth about the Chinese Communist Party’s doctrine of concealment, co-option, and coercion. They now understand that the pandemic results from the concealment of the virus. They saw the CCP’s co-option of Hong Kong eviscerating all of its freedoms. They realize the coercion of Uyghurs in Xinjiang has grown into a punishable genocide. And they don’t like it. This widespread recognition of the CCP’s belligerence has given government leaders and CEOs around the world the political will to stand up to Beijing’s bullying. In Washington, this has become the most unifying, bipartisan issue of our time.
However, even if the world continues the Clean Network’s momentum, a credible alternative to untrusted Chinese technology is needed. The United States no longer has a telecom equipment sector, and Europe’s Nokia and Ericsson remain the last major vendors making equipment for 5G networks. Without world-class solutions, countries might free themselves of Chinese infiltration, but they won’t be able to take advantage of the business transformation and improvements in safety and productivity promised by the Internet of Things.
There are alternatives; some just getting started. New network models, including Open Radio Access Networks, called Open RAN, promise solutions that are not led by Chinese companies: cloud services dominated by American hyper scalers; chips and equipment made in Taiwan, Korea, and Japan; software delivered by the United States and India; and systems integration provided by companies across Europe, the United States and India. In Montana, the Huawei cell tower overlooking the nuclear missile base has already been swapped out for one provided by Mavenir, an American vendor of Open RAN solutions.
These new models promise to usher in an industrial era where China’s technology hegemony is broken and citizens of free countries worldwide can communicate without the fear that an authoritarian state has visibility—and control—over what they are saying.
Leon Panetta, the former U.S. secretary of defense, CIA director, and member of Purdue University’s Center for Tech Diplomacy’s Advisory Board, put the stakes in perspective: “China’s techno-economic aggression presents a serious threat to the United States and the free world, especially when it comes to advanced technologies such as 5G, AI, and semiconductors,” His prescient advice: “The key to securing freedom is securing high tech through widespread adoption of trusted technologies. The Clean Network pioneered a trust-based model for countering authoritarian aggression across all areas of techno-economic competition. I support the adoption of that successful model.” We agree and see the trust-based Clean Network model as the most effective way to safeguard tomorrow’s tech, advance freedom, and offer humanity the best hope for peace.