Huawei says a disconnected world benefits no-one

Today was the first day of Huawei’s 17th analyst and press conference in Shenzhen, China, which due to the coronavirus crisis had moved to an online format. There was much interest in how Huawei intended to respond to continuing and escalating restrictions from the US government, which has also put pressure on European allies to restrict Huawei’s involvement in digital initiatives in Europe.
Huawei’s response really hammered home a single point. Where the US foresees a single digital world – US-led, and connected via US technology supplied by US companies – Huawei casts doubts on this. Carefully pointing out that it would prefer a single Digital World it makes no bones about the fact that it is here to stay and that the US’s strategy is, in fact, leading to two Connected Worlds: the US-approved and the US-decried. But even if the US’s vision of the future is correct, it will lead to two world’s within a world – the digital have’s and have not’s. Vast swathes of the world’s population will be deprived of the much-touted benefits of digitalisation, because they cannot afford first-world, expensive technology.
Those of us who have seen the digital world grow and flourish have tended to develop an almost hippie-like vision of global connectedness along with localisation – or ‘glocalisation’. Huawei simply points out that the US wants to make the rules, deciding who can and can’t play.
Guo Ping, Huawei’s rotating chairman, raised one of many thorny issues between the two camps – patenting. He noted, for example, that while Huawei had 85,000 patents in its portfolio it did not intend to ‘weaponise’ these – subtly pointing to the rising disquiet about how US-style patenting is actually impeding progress. Chinese companies have long been accused of not respecting patents, a system developed to reward those who innovate. But the problem isn’t just one of criminality – all countries have criminals who steal ideas – so much as a difference in how innovation is perceived and rewarded. Both sides are right and wrong, depending on your political and cultural view.
All of this points to how two fundamentally different attitudes are influencing the development of the Digital World. On the one side is market capitalism, led by the US; on the other is collectivism championed by economies such as China and Russia. Everyone else sits somewhere along this spectrum, mixing the two schools of thought.
Where once Russia was the prime target for US disapproval, China’s recent industrial and digital success has seen it move into the cross hairs. This is partly ideological and partly plain old commercial competition. The irony being that a truly free market approach means that consumers are indeed free to buy whatever they want. Restricting that choice through policy means that the country is adopting a flavour of capitalism to suit itself. Just as China and Russia have done – blending the features of capitalism they perceive as positive with features of collectivism they wish to retain.
Huawei’s version of the Connected World, as presented today, was sprinkled with concepts of inclusivity, democratisation (for want of a better word) of technology, and openness.
Guo Ping noted that US companies often seek to fragment standardisation, creating exclusive ecosystems that drive up costs. He commented that standardisation and openness were critical for the success of the digital world, and talked about Huawei’s engagement with opensource initiatives. When you think about it, opensource is a flavour of collectivism, with individuals and companies contributing to make something jointly better for everyone’s benefit.
Embedded within Huawei’s vision is a message that it is striving for true openness and engaging with partners worldwide. It noted that it spends almost $19 billion on American technology that it is now effectively banned from buying. Its response has been to seek supply elsewhere and, where necessary, develop its own by increasing R&D spending by 30%. The company was at pains to point out that the US is damaging its own long-term interests by seeking to wall itself off, and is alienating vital European partners along with much of the developing world.
Huawei also positioned itself as an alternative to the US-dominated cloud. This is something the EU pre-empted by the introduction of GDPR, which saw the repatriation of vast amounts of data back into Europe and the application of European protection to citizens’ data. The issue raised is partly one of trust, and who we trust with our data and our digital future. But it’s also one of inclusivity. The US’s approach is an amazing digital future for everyone who can afford it; Huawei’s argument is that more people should be able to afford it.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the arguments between China and the US, and the US and Huawei, as a European, Huawei’s comments are sobering. Not only does it portray recent events as little more than self-destructive Digital McCarthyism, but it forces us to question our vision for the Connected World and Digital Inclusiveness. What does inclusiveness really mean, and how do we go about delivering it?