German Reporters Visit Huawei’s Demonstration Lab in Brussels

The world's biggest telecoms manufacturer is anxious to prove its cybersecurity credentials
By Nicole Hao
Nicole Hao
Nicole Hao
Nicole Hao is a Washington-based reporter focused on China-related topics. Before joining the Epoch Media Group in July 2009, she worked as a global product manager for a railway business in Paris, France.
March 26, 2019 Updated: March 26, 2019

Huawei, a Chinese state-linked company and the world’s largest manufacturer of telecommunications equipment, recently opened its European Cyber Security Transparency Centre in Brussels, Belgium. The Centre is intended as a demonstration lab to show that Huawei systems are free of electronic “back doors” that make them vulnerable to hacking.

However, a visit by Germany’s Deutsche Welle revealed a different picture about Huawei’s attempt at transparency.

In recent years, Huawei has become notorious for its relationship with the Chinese regime, as well as widespread allegations that its equipment can be used for espionage.

The African Union, a major customer of Huawei, was found to have its facilities compromised by Chinese hackers, and equipment bought by the Japanese government was found to contain additional components of unknown function.

Since Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Canada last December, the security of Huawei’s products and systems has attracted attention. European bureaucrats and politicians have been in heated discussion over whether to follow their allies U.S. and Australia and bar Huawei from the construction of their upcoming 5G networks.

Germany is a key market for Huawei. Deutsche Telekom, the country’s biggest telecommunication service supplier, had teamed up with Huawei via its subsidiary T-Mobile in building one of Huawei’s largest 5G trial systems in Poland.

In past months, the German government and telecommunication businesses have held several conferences to discuss a possible ban of Huawei involvement in the construction of the local 5G network.

Deutsche Welle is based in the former West Germany capital of Bonn, where Deutsche Telekom, as well as the German Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) are headquartered. The BSI is an upper-level federal agency in charge of managing cyber and communication security.

Last November, Huawei opened its Bonn Security Innovation Lab. Via this lab, Huawei can work closely with BSI, Deutsche Telekom, and other players in the business to expand its market share in 5G.

Over the course of several months, Deutsche Welle made multiple attempts to contact Huawei to schedule a visit its Bonn lab, but didn’t receive a direct response until recently. On March 23, the Chinese-language edition of Deutsche Welle reported that it had gotten permission for a visit, but not to the Bonn facility.

Public Relations Offensive

Huawei’s European Cyber Security Transparency Centre was opened in Brussels on March 5, and the building is located just hundreds of yards away from the European Commission building and multiple foreign embassies, including the U.S. Embassy.

Huawei said that the Centre is open to EU policymakers and business customers, so that they can have trust in the company and its security standards.

In recent months, due to negative international coverage that increased following the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, Huawei has been active in public relations efforts. Since January, Huawei founder, CEO, and Meng’s father Ren Zhengfei spoke with multiple media organizations and gave speeches. This contrasts with the past three decades, during which Ren had opted to stay out of the public spotlight.

Meanwhile, Huawei invited foreign leaders and reporters to visit its headquarters in Shenzhen, southern China, where they might be persuaded as to the advantages of partnering with Huawei.

‘Nothing to Hide’

According to the Deutsche Welle journalists, the Huawei lab was in a nondescript building, without any company logo externally visible except on a small screen in the intercom system. Inside the lab, Chinese engineers and Western speakers spoke at length to their guests about cybersecurity being a part of Huawei’s DNA, and that the company was doing all it could to ensure transparency.

Behind the demonstration room, the center featured two testing areas, for black and white box ytesting

Black box testing is a software testing method in which the internal structure, design, and workings of the item being tested are unknown to the tester, while in white box testing, all these details are known. Using 10 computers in the white box Testing room, testers could connect to Huawei’s systems in several Huawei research and development centers and read encrypted sourcing codes.

At the time of the visit, nobody was working at the lab. According to Huawei, this was because the center had been opened only recently.

After quickly presented the testing rooms to the reporters, Huawei engineers brought the reporters back to demonstration room, where a group of Huawei employees just arrived and chatted with each other.

A Huawei director at the lab told the reporters, “the purpose of this lab here in Brussels is to tell the world that our Huawei has nothing to hide, that we are transparent.”

Setbacks in Europe

In general, Huawei has been facing great pressure from the U.S. government and other countries of Five Eyes, an Anglophone intelligence alliance comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States.

In Europe, Huawei has met with challenges from an increasing number of countries. In January, Poland arrested Huawei executive Wang Weijing. Although Huawei fired Wang quickly and Warsaw said the arrest wasn’t related to Huawei, the scandal impacted Huawei’s image.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited Italy on March 21, and on March 21 signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for projects of the “Belt and Road Initiative,” which was expected to allow Huawei into the Italian 5G infrastructure market.

But the deal that Rome and Beijing ultimately inked contained 29 items, not one of them containing telecommunication and tech-related deals.

Huawei failed in Italy, and may face an increasingly hostile environment in future, because the EU has considered adopting a more defensive strategy toward China, having branded the world’s second-largest economic power a “systemic rival” on March 12.

Ericsson, Nokia, and other suppliers operate in Europe, and are Huawei’s main competitors in the global 5G market.

Nicole Hao
Nicole Hao
Nicole Hao is a Washington-based reporter focused on China-related topics. Before joining the Epoch Media Group in July 2009, she worked as a global product manager for a railway business in Paris, France.