US Senators Raise Concerns About Beijing’s Involvement in Setting 5G Technical Standards

By Frank Fang
Frank Fang
Frank Fang
Frank Fang is a Taiwan-based journalist. He covers news in China and Taiwan. He holds a master's degree in materials science from Tsinghua University in Taiwan.
March 4, 2019 Updated: March 4, 2019

U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) have jointly penned a letter calling for a public report on the possible threats facing U.S companies due to Beijing’s participation in 5G international standard-setting organizations.

The Feb. 27 letter, addressed to Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, called for a detailed and unclassified report from the U.S. intelligence community, given that Chinese influence in international standard-setting bodies (ISSBs) for the next-generation of 5G wireless technology “is not fully appreciated.”

The senators made a list of issues that would need be addressed in the hypothetical report, including: “Specific examples and case studies of attempts by China and other foreign adversaries to exert pressure or political influence within the ISSBs or at major telecommunication conferences to secure standards that are favorable to Chinese companies and patent holders, or that might introduce deficiencies into 5G networks.”

Setting Standards

5G standards are currently being decided by international bodies such as the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), which unites seven telecommunications standards development organizations. Another example is the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), an agency under the United Nations that is responsible for coordinating global telecommunication operations and services.

The senators wished to know what the implications would be for U.S. “economic and security interests” should China lead in setting 5G standards.

Currently, Chinese tech giant Huawei and its domestic competitor, ZTE, own roughly 10 percent of the 1,450 5G patents filed, compared to U.S. tech firm Qualcomm’s 15 percent, Nokia’s 11 percent, and Ericsson’s 8 percent, according to a 2018 report by the U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC), which is tasked to monitor the national security implications of Sino–U.S. trade.

Experts have previously noted that by becoming the international standard, Chinese companies could pocket lucrative licensing fees from mobile service providers and governments that use their 5G technology.

The senators also noted that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence—where Warner is the vice chairman and Rubio is a member—had heard “anecdotal concerns that China is attempting to exert pressure or political influence in the ISSB.”

The U.S. think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies released a December 2018 report in which it detailed several examples of such pressure.

On one occasion, the Chinese regime pressured Chinese companies to back a type of technology for which Huawei holds most of the core patents—known as polar codes—instead of more mature competing technologies pioneered by Qualcomm and other Western firms. A standoff ensued, which ultimately ended with the majority of companies voting in favor of polar codes. This means all 5G mobile cellular technology will employ the polar codes.

In another instance, Chinese computer manufacturer Lenovo voted in favor of a proposed standard from Qualcomm at the 3GPP, instead of one proposed by Huawei. As a result, the firm “faced intense criticism in China,” the report said.

“China has politicized the standards-making process,” the report concluded.

The senators ended their letter by calling on the U.S. administration to work with its allies, including the European Union, UK, South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, to collectively strengthen 5G security standards.


In an effort to secure 5G technologies and standards, Beijing established the IMT-2020, a nonprofit group promoting 5G cooperation around the world, in February 2013. The group, which includes Chinese telecoms operators, universities, and research institutes as its members, was established jointly by several central governmental agencies: the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, National Development and Reform Commission, and Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST).

In June 2017, the MOST together with two other central agencies, issued a Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) for the development of Chinese technical standards in science and technology, including in the field of 5G.

Under the plan, the government would take a “guiding role” in implementing the developed standards, while pushing them for adoption in other countries through projects and partnerships under the “One Belt, One Road” initiative.

The Chinese regime announced “One Belt, One Road” in 2013 as a project to build geopolitical influence by financing infrastructure projects in more than 60 countries.

The plan also includes financial subsidy and government purchase programs to support the effort.

The Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece People’s Daily, made clear its ambitions in a May 2018 editorial, defining telecommunication standard-setting as competitions between countries based on their “political, economic, and technological prowess.” Thus, only “powerful nations have the right to speak,” the editorial read.

It added that China was in the position to push forward its 5G standards globally because it has the second-biggest economy in the world, and has made big technological advances.

Outside China

Many Chinese nationals, as well as companies and research institutes, have since taken up important positions at international 5G standard-setting bodies.

The USCC wrote in its annual report in 2018 that, Huawei, along with China’s state-run telecoms provider China Mobile, served as chair and vice chair—two out of five leadership positions—at a 5G focus group within ITU from 2015 to 2016.

Additionally, Chinese firms and government research institutes accounted for the largest number of chairs or vice chairs in 5G standard-setting groups within the ITU, holding eight of the 39 available leadership positions, as of September 2018. South Korea came in second holding 6 leadership positions, while Verizon was the only leadership representative for the United States.

Currently, Zhao Houlin, a former official at the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications (a precursor to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology), serves as the ITU’s secretary general. Also, Richard Li, a chief internet scientist at Huawei, is the chairman of an ITU focus group that examines how emerging technologies can integrate with 5G.

USCC member Michael Wessel expressed his concerns about China’s 5G standards while speaking at a Commission public hearing in March 2018.

“We can’t forget that China’s leaders are tightening their grip on their economy and their people. Technology is used to advance the Party’s and the state’s interests. Many of their interests are in direct conflict with our own goals and ideals,” Wessel said.

Frank Fang
Frank Fang
Frank Fang is a Taiwan-based journalist. He covers news in China and Taiwan. He holds a master's degree in materials science from Tsinghua University in Taiwan.