So “avoid Huawei products” is the message from the intelligence and security establishments of Five Eyes countries (and others). Not merely do they have the potential to provide access for Chinese surveillance, but the company breached sanctions against Iran and steals intellectual property.

Of course, as Deutsche Bank or HSBC or many other banks have shown, breaching sanctions isn’t any sort of impediment to doing business in the West. Just pay a fine, sack some scapegoats and move on.

As for commercial espionage, well, the West has certainly never done that, unlike the perfidious Chinese. As Tom Uren of ASPI, the policy arm of the Australian security establishment, wrote in the Financial Review today, China engaged in “espionage in search of trade secrets and commercial-in-confidence material from Western companies such as BHP, Rio Tinto, Fortescue Metals, Yahoo, Google and many more. A single hack of Rio Tinto is reported to have cost them £800 million in lost revenue because of ‘commercial disadvantage in contractual negotiations’.”

Except, commercial spying by Western intelligence agencies is a matter of public acknowledgement. Barack Obama’s own review panel told him it should be banned. The Australian Signals Directorate routinely engages in it. Our greatest corruption scandal of recent decades, the bugging of the Timor-Leste cabinet by ASIS at the request of the Howard government, was commercial espionage. For some reason, it’s an outrage to the likes of ASPI that the Chinese might do what we’ve been doing for generations.

If the Chinese are merely copying western practices on commercial espionage, the copying goes the other way on the abuse of technology for surveillance. It is routinely held against Huawei that Chinese laws will compel it to use its products to relay information to the Chinese government. Yet that is exactly the kind of law that the major political parties conspired to pass at the end of 2018, enabling security agencies — with absolutely no oversight — to force companies to plant malware and alter their infrastructure so that they can obtain information. Australian politicians thus aped the Chinese.

But surely there’s a difference? The surveillance and sabotage of cybersecurity that the Australian government engages in is to protect us, whereas that of the Beijing regime is to serve its own brutal interests, rather than protect Chinese people. Well, ask Witness K and Bernard Collaery about that. They’re being prosecuted under intelligence laws for embarrassing the government by revealing criminal conduct, prosecuted by a politically appointed director of public prosecutions who, for all her eagerness to prosecute K and Collaery five years after the event, magically determined that she shouldn’t prosecute anyone in the government for a blatant case of partisan leaking in the AWU raids case. Australia’s intelligence services operate to serve the interests of political and business elites as much as protect us from the endless War on Terror.

The constant narrative from Western security agencies — repeated verbatim by most mainstream journalists — that China is the great predator of the internet, spying on its own population and the rest of us alike, is entirely correct, but profoundly self-serving. The Chinese model of a surveillance society, in which citizens know they are constantly being monitored and their data is constantly being uploaded and manipulated for the purposes of control, in which no one has any secrets — and certainly not any secure intellectual property — isn’t a nightmarish dystopia that Western governments want to avoid, but a model they believe worthy of emulation. What else, after all, is our society of surveillance capitalism, in which unaccountable multinationals accumulate our data in order to control our consumption patterns, and unaccountable security agencies can sabotage cybersecurity systems in order to ensure there is nowhere government bureaucrats can’t observe?

Perhaps what Western security agencies resent isn’t what the Chinese do, but the fact they do it so much better than us.

Peter Fray

Help us keep up the fight

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today and get your first 12 weeks for $12.

Cancel anytime.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW