It was perhaps the most politically charged smartphone announcement to date, but the manufacturer said nothing about it. Huawei announced the Mate 30 and Mate 30 Pro in Munich in September. Due to the prohibition for US companies to trade with Huawei, the phone could not run any services from Google. Without Play Store and other services, an Android smartphone is not as attractive in Europe. Would Huawei release it?
The answer varied during the day. Prior to the Munich event, Huawei said it would not happen. After the event, the manufacturer said that the new smartphone would certainly be released in the Benelux. And then the story was finally that the Chinese smartphone maker would offer him as an experiment in a few countries. That’s what happened: the smartphone is now for sale in Switzerland and Spain. The Mate 30 was one of the victims in the trade war between the US and China.
Huawei was a pawn in that trade war anyway. The US clearly attacked Huawei. The American government blocked the trade between American companies and Huawei so that the smartphone maker could not really launch new phones with Google services on them worldwide. All the manufacturer’s plans were turned upside down.
Not only in politics but also in the tech world, China was perhaps the theme of this year. China is the factory where a lot of hardware comes from and a large country where tech companies can earn a lot of money. But it is also a complex country. Politics work differently than here and leaders have different values about human rights, privacy and intellectual property.
There are many stories to tell about how relations between the West and China have affected the tech sector. Think for example of Blizzard, which apologized for the case of a suspended Hearthstone player who expressed his support for the protests in Hong Kong. At the request of the Hong Kong government – and therefore the Chinese government – Apple, with its focus on human rights and privacy, pulled out two apps from the App Store, including one that allowed citizens to avoid incitement.
Apple also reacted strikingly when Google revealed a vulnerability in iOS with the help of which China spies on Uyghurs. The Chinese government suppresses Uyghurs on a large scale. What do you think? Did Apple speak out against the Chinese government that oppresses millions of people, including iOS leaks? No. Bringing them to the Chinese government was the right choice in terms of human rights and privacy, but not politically useful and probably not good for sales in China. And so Apple published a response in which the company accused Google of releasing information about the leak, but the Chinese government was not even mentioned.
But this story is not about that. We focus on the company that is, as far as we know, most affected by the trade war between the US and China: Huawei.
The long history of concerns about espionage by Huawei
Imagine, you have been a fan of the Huawei Mate smartphone series for years and wanted to buy the latest version this fall. You can’t do that. And even if you get it via import, there are no Google services on it by default. It is the most bizarre controversy of concerns about Chinese espionage so far: Huawei is no longer allowed to install Google services on its new smartphones.
The plot twist came from the United States government. It has been known for years that US President Donald Trump has little interest in China. “China drops us off, ” he said in an interview with CNN in 2011. That has been so long ago that you need to activate Adobe Flash to watch the video. “They make our products and take our jobs.” At the time he already proposed to introduce a 25 percent import tax on Chinese products.
That charge came and he led, as expected, to a trade war between the US and China. One of the aspects is the fear of Chinese espionage. That has little to do with Trump. The link between Huawei and espionage goes back many years.
In the first instance it was mainly about industrial espionage. For example, Cisco accused Huawei of stealing intellectual property in the area of routers and switches. That was in January 2003 . The fact that it was copied was so visible that Huawei just admitted it, wrote The Wall Street Journal at the time. There were more stories like that. Huawei employees would remove the housing of network equipment at trade fairs and take photos of the PCBs, Bloomberg said .
Now espionage for your company is different from the fear of political espionage, but those accusations soon followed. The government of George W. Bush stopped the takeover of 3Com by Huawei, among others. 3Com also made stuff for the US Army, and “Huawei has ties with the Chinese Army,” The New York Times wrote at the time . That was in 2008. A year later, HP acquired 3Com .
The denial of espionage and close ties with the Chinese government are as old as the accusations themselves. Newsweek wrote in 2006 about the denial of ties with the Chinese government and Huawei already argued that the company is 100 percent owned by employees.
And even then, that was not new information. The Far Eastern Economic Review, which at the time was a sister edition of The Wall Street Journal, already wrote in 2000 about the alleged ties between Huawei and the Chinese government. The manufacturer’s management denied this, but the magazine already found countless clues to the strong relationships with the government and the help Huawei had received from it.
What does not help is that Huawei was founded in 1988 by Ren Zhengfei, who made a career with the Chinese army. An analysis of Rand’s non-profit organization from 2008 also points to this: “Chinese private companies such as Huawei show the ‘digital triangle model’. The army, other government organizations and their research institutes help commercial companies by providing them with money and personnel to provide them with call it “national champions.” Huawei himself partly confirmed that image in the article from 2000. In it, a top man states that Huawei receives a lot of help from the government in hiring staff from outside Shenzhen.
This year again showed what this help consists of . A Chinese ambassador put pressure on the Faroe Islands government to opt for Huawei. If the latter did not happen, the export of the island group might suffer adverse consequences. Huawei denied any involvement and the Chinese government naturally claimed that this is not a government initiative or policy, but it fits perfectly into the pattern of the way China would like to give its champion a boost.
The US started lobbying stronger than ever last year to exclude Huawei from building 5G networks. That construction is in full swing worldwide. Concerns about Chinese influence in May led the US to give Huawei a blow that threatened the company’s future.
Governments have been qui-vive about Huawei for years. For example, the American government conducted an audit under Barack Obama around 2011. There was no evidence of espionage, Reuters writes . But it could not be excluded that the many bugs that could form a backdoor in the software were intentionally placed there. Those concerns are still there. In the United Kingdom, many software vulnerabilities were recently discovered and no progress was made . And there we come across a gap for capitalist societies: Huawei is perhaps not the safest option, but for providers, it is the best option. These interests collided extremely hard this year.
Why excluding Huawei is so difficult
Where many people have focused on the absence of evidence for espionage, the concerns of governments now seem to focus on current vulnerabilities and the question marks about government policy in China. Because what if the Chinese government can demand from Huawei that the company makes espionage possible via its equipment? That alone is a red flag for Western governments.
Then why do providers want to get involved with Huawei? There are two reasons for this. Firstly, Huawei uses favorable prices. Equipment for 5g networks costs less at Huawei than at competitors. In addition, the Chinese company has built up a lead in various areas. As a result, providers with fewer masts can cover larger areas, and that offers an additional advantage: the fewer masts you have to build, the less hassle with permits.
That does not fall from the sky. Huawei has simply thrown more money into it in recent years. It is not true that Huawei spends more on R&D than Nokia and Ericsson, but it has a much higher turnover and therefore much more scope to invest.
How Huawei dealt with the trade ban
On May 16, the US government banned US companies from trading with Huawei. Quite a few people realized what it would mean. The news article I wrote did not mention major consequences. “Trading with US companies is necessary for Huawei, whose various suppliers are in the US. Probably, Huawei is going to apply for a license to trade, or find other suppliers outside of the US.”
That is also the first thing you think of: physical products. For example, Huawei uses chips from Broadcom and Texas Instruments in its smartphones. Sometimes the company also uses technology from Qualcomm, and of course there are Intel processors in its laptops.
Huawei was also prepared. It had purchased more products from US suppliers in the months before the trade ban than it needed. If the ban were of a temporary nature, Huawei could bridge a certain period. But the biggest blow came a few days later, in a night from Sunday to Monday. Google revoked the Huawei Android license .
The consequences are known. The P30 Pro was the last high-end smartphone that was released. Current models continue to receive updates, but Google did not approve to install its apps and services on new models.
Huawei has already done a lot to minimize the consequences. The Mate 30 has no American-made components, for example, and no Google services. Huawei is busy developing its own services, for example for cards. For example, it wants to release Android phones without Google services.
In addition, the company announced its own Harmony OS . That is not yet a significant factor, because smartphones with the operating system are not yet available and will not be coming soon. Moreover, there was quite a bit of criticism of the state of, for example, the Ark Compiler from Harmony OS. He can not compile his own demo . No Hello World, therefore.
In addition, the company devised a trick to release new phones. It picks up an old model, changes its appearance, adds new cameras, and does not need new approval for Google services. After all, it is a phone with the same screen, the same soc and the same type number.
In the meantime, the US government has begun handing out licenses to companies that can trade with Huawei without threatening US state security. Microsoft received a license to deliver Windows for laptops, but Google has not received that license yet. It would have been a nice Christmas present.
With the trade ban, Huawei was a weapon in the trade war between the US and China. Concerns about espionage have been around for twenty years, but the trade ban was not necessary to keep Huawei equipment from the US. Moreover, Huawei does not sell smartphones in the United States, so that government has no interest in blocking Huawei in that area. So how will this continue?
What the future brings is still uncertain. Many people – including those at Huawei – will have thought that the trade ban would be short-lived, as a simple pressure from the US government. That also seemed to be the case when Trump announced that the US would partially lift the trade ban.
It is now the end of December and Huawei is still on the Entity List, although licenses have been issued for a number of companies. Huawei has made the Mate 30 Pro without American parts, The Wall Street Journal reported . Huaweis own division HiSilicon, the Dutch NXP and Murata, among others, supplied parts.
However, it should be borne in mind that the Mate 30 Pro is a kind of limited edition , because the phone has appeared in a limited edition. Can the aforementioned suppliers also supply parts for the tens of millions of other smartphones that Huawei produces every month?
No matter how it ends, the trade ban has various consequences. First, Huawei will be suspicious of US suppliers, because the US government can stop all trade at any time. Preferably, Huawei builds a real alternative to Android with Harmony OS.
Thereby it is best to get help from other manufacturers, such as Xiaomi, Redmi, Oppo, Vivo and Realme. The Chinese government strives for independence from all tech companies in 2025, and only together can they build a platform that becomes a serious alternative to Android.
On the other hand, all the American government’s lobbying work with allies – including the Netherlands and Belgium – was useful. The Dutch government gives itself the option of obliging providers to remove equipment from, for example, Huawei from networks. European rules have the same meaning.
That is logical, because you entrust important matters to companies from your own country. And if that fails, at least to companies from a country that you are almost certain you will not get into a fight with. Just as you wouldn’t want another country to mess with your supply of clean drinking water, you don’t want the government from a hostile country to shut down the digital tap of mobile internet or see everything you do online.
With that, a new page has been written in telecom history and the concerns about espionage, which have been dormant for twenty years, have reached a temporary high point. In the field of smartphones, Huawei can continue for the time being with its trick to release ‘new’ smartphones and phones are still getting updates. Moreover, the market share remains at the same level. The first shock is now over. On the chessboard of world politics, Huawei is a pawn that was attacked but not yet beaten.