There is plenty to unpack in the Trump administration’s sweeping attempt at removing Chinese technology and the companies behind it from communications networks and digital services provision worldwide.
Because that’s what it is: the United States Government wants this to go well beyond banning ByteDance and video-sharing platform TikTok, and Tencent with its popular messaging and payments platform WeChat.
Sure, the forced TikTok sale to Microsoft or Twitter with Trump asking for a slice of the action is a standover tactic unlike anything else seen in the past. Dropping the ban hammer on Tencent is a big deal too, one that sent a chill wind through some local companies with investment from the Chinese tech giant.
The bans are part of a bigger Clean Networks programme however, one that the US Government kicked off in April with the Clean Path initiative to force American allies to keep Huawei and ZTE out of 5G networks.
As set out last week, Clean Networks lay down US demands that there be no Chinese tech touching American customers, their telcos and internet providers anywhere.
New Zealand telcos are not keen on talking about what the Clean Carrier and Clean Cable provisions will mean for them. The former initiative says Chinese telcos must not interconnect with US ones. The latter is aimed at stopping China from gathering intelligence “at hyperscale” which presumably means the full-take of information the US itself tries to do.
Does that mean NZ telcos will need to stop connecting to Chinese ones, and for example not have roaming deals with them, if they want to continue to connect to their US equivalents?
The US says it will “also work with foreign partners to ensure undersea cables around the world aren’t similarly subject to compromise”. What exactly that means remains to be seen but telco engineer stress levels might be heading upwards soon.
The Clean Cloud bit of Clean Networks adds Alibaba and Baidu to the list of evil information gatherers for the Chinese Communist Party that US residents and organisations must avoid, a pointless prohibition really.
Apple and Google will head-desk in unison over Clean Store and Clean Apps. The US Government wants “PRC apps” to be removed from US mobile app stores, because they’re untrusted, spread propaganda and disinformation and viruses, and are a threat to privacy.
What “PRC apps” are is anyone’s guess. Roblox? Call of Duty? Fortnite? The makers of those games have received investment from Tencent. There’s no evidence that TikTok was sending users’ data to the communist Chinese, for example. Yet it’s been banned, but Facebook which markets its users’ lives to private organisations and political interests is fine.
Clean Apps takes a swipe at “untrusted PRC smartphone manufacturers” that preinstall and make available for download what the US Government confusingly calls “trusted apps” in their app stores.
This seems to be a reference to the earlier ban on Huawei, which is now called “an arm of the PRC surveillance state” by the Americans and which can no longer preload Google’s suite of apps like Gmail, Maps, Hangouts, Drive and importantly, the Play app store.
If that’s the case, Clean Apps will hit Chinese phone-makers who have been able to continue to add Google apps to the base, open-source Android mobile operating system hard.
A Huawei Mate P40 Pro is a great Android smartphone but without the Google apps, it’s just not very useable in the West. It might be the last high-end Huawei phone for a while too. Huawei this week said it has had to stop making its HiSilicon Kirin chipsets because they are made with US software and hardware.
Apple doesn’t have the issue Google faces of losing licensing fees, but China accounts for a fifth of iPhone sales. This makes Apple an obvious target for Chinese retaliation.
There is every chance that the tech trade war will escalate. It’s election year in the US, and Trump is desperate for some political quick wins. Clean Networks is not about taking China to task for being a national security threat and human rights abuser.
If it was, election meddling and malware peddling Russia should be disconnected like China – but the Trump administration is not interested in doing that.
The whole thing is pretty warped and it’s made worse by the Trump administration asking the allies that it has been willing to sell downriver in the recent past to join in on Clean Networks. Apparently 30 nations are already on board and yes, New Zealand will be under pressure to become a Clean Country (that’s the actual term) too.
Clean Networks is also likely to translate into large losses for US tech companies. US chipmaker Qualcomm already protested that the ban on Huawei will cost it US$8 billion ($12.1b) a year in lost sales.
That’s during a pandemic-induced deep recession and it’s hard to see why any tech company in the US or elsewhere would want to be part of Clean Networks and self-destruct like this.
Xi Jinping’s China knows this of course, and will look for ways to make life uncomfortable for tech companies as a way to get back at Trump, the US and anyone who supports Clean Networks. It’s difficult to see any winners in that tech trade war, least of all the Uyghurs in concentration camps and Hong Kongers in whose names it is being fought.