“Trust Us” – Exposing Huawei’s Influence Playbook in the COVID Era
COMMENTARY

April 16, 2020 by Craig Singleton
A Huawei location in Santa Clara, Calif., on April 19, 2018. (Yichuan Cao/Sipa USA/TNS)

As COVID-19 wreaks havoc around the world, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its media surrogates have turned to a familiar messaging playbook to manipulate the narrative surrounding the outbreak, one well-steeped in disinformation, denial, and deceit.

As phrases like “deep fakes” and “bot farms” have recently become mainstays of our lexicon, it is easy to overlook the less sophisticated ways foreign adversaries are attempting to influence our way of life. Yes, efforts by Russia to weaponize social media platforms deserve our attention, particularly in the lead up to the election, but there are far simpler and more effective ways that foreign countries, particularly China, are seeking to influence American public opinion. One need look no further than the ongoing battle with Huawei and the future of 5G to truly understand how far China is willing to go to win the battle of ideas.

The national security concerns about Huawei’s ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and People’s Liberation Army (PLA), as well as its predatory business model, have been well-documented. For its part, the U.S. government has taken decisive legal action against Huawei, as evidenced by the pending extradition case involving Huawei’s CFO, Meng Wanzhou. Not one to take these setbacks lying down, the CCP has launched an aggressive, worldwide campaign to defend Huawei’s interests and undermine the United States’ credibility, all the while falsely championing the technology giant as a reliable, low-cost alternative to its Western rivals.

Already, there are troubling indications that Huawei’s strategy appears to be paying off, particularly in its campaign to gain access to national 5G networks. Perhaps more worrisome, the U.S. government’s messaging campaign appears to be falling on deaf ears, as even some of our closest allies have refused to ban Huawei in its entirety.

In countries like Australia, where our efforts to limit Huawei’s access initially prevailed, China is now ramping up efforts to overturn that ban. In an attempt to take its case directly to the Australian people, Huawei has hired former Australian government officials to lobby on its behalf, launched a series of town-hall meetings called “Let’s Talk Huawei,” publicly attacked its detractors, and even used sports team sponsorship to win over the population. While Western companies would never be allowed to conduct anything approaching this level of influence in China, Huawei is expertly leveraging the West’s open systems to improve its own fortune.

We are hardly immune to the influence campaign plaguing our friends down under. Here in Washington, Huawei has hired former senior U.S. officials, including Andy Purdy, to leverage their relationships inside and outside of government to lobby on the company’s behalf. Huawei also recently ran a series of targeted advertisements in an attempt to derail a Congressional bill aimed at preventing the company from investing in rural networks. Perhaps more troubling, recent statements by Huawei and the CCP in the United States, as well as in France, Germany, and the U.K., have bordered on threatening, warning of the economic consequences of “unfairly” discriminating against the 5G behemoth. Just this week, Huawei’s Chairman warned the U.S. to expect countermeasures from the Chinese government if it further restricted Huawei’s access to suppliers, as the company’s profit last year grew at the slowest pace in three years.

These brutish tactics are hardly occurring in a vacuum, as China regularly cultivates relationships with academics and business leaders in a wide range of sectors to further its agenda. Taken together, these tactics represent China’s long-game approach to influencing public opinion and creating a new world order in which the United States and our allies are beholden to the People’s Republic.

Confronting this modern-day challenge will require significantly strengthening partnerships between federal and state governments, to include appropriately resourcing entities charged with enforcing existing laws aimed at exposing foreign influence. These efforts should also include drafting common-sense legislation designed to close the disinformation loopholes companies like Huawei and their foreign government-backers are currently weaponizing. A proposed, bipartisan Senate bill represents an excellent first step in this regard and members of the House would be wise to adopt similar legislation.

Additional measures could include amplifying language contained in Executive Order 13770 and 18 U.S.C. § 207 governing the ability of former senior U.S. government officials to accept employment with foreign state-owned enterprises or other companies deemed a national security risk, as well as the creation of state-level systems akin to the Foreign Agent Reporting Act to track influence agents operating at the state-level.

China’s attempts to manipulate public perceptions about the coronavirus are a symptom of a much larger disease. While developing a vaccine for COVID may take months, there is no reason we cannot inoculate ourselves now from the next outbreak of Chinese interference.

Craig Singleton is a national security expert and former diplomat who served under the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations.

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