What would Margaret Thatcher have made of the UK’s decision to allow Huawei to bid to build parts of the country’s 5G network? US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, had a very clear answer when he delivered the aptly titled Margaret Thatcher Lecture at the Centre for Policy Studies think tank in London this Wednesday.
She would not have stood for it, was his short answer. As Pompeo put it: “Ask yourself would the Iron Lady be silent when China violates the sovereignty of nations through corruption or coercion? Would she allow China to control the internet of the future?”
He was certainly right about taking a firm line. For that is just what Thatcher did when she first broached the subject of Hong Kong’s future sovereignty with China in 1982.
Flushed with Britain’s victory against Argentina over the Falkland Islands, Thatcher insisted on the validity of the 19th century treaties that had ceded possession of Hong Kong to the UK. Treaties could be altered but not abrogated, she said.
But two years later, Thatcher was back in the Chinese capital for a quick 15-minute signing ceremony whereby the UK agreed to hand Hong Kong back to China in 1997. Thatcher had learned a difficult lesson about a rising power and a declining one.
It is one that her successor, as Britain’s second female prime minister, appears to have taken on board. According to the Daily Telegraph, it was Theresa May herself who made the casting vote in favour of Huawei at a National Security Council meeting on April 23.
The highly sensitive decision was allegedly leaked to the same newspaper by her Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, who was promptly sacked. He has protested his innocence ever since.
Netizen reaction in China to the debate has been pretty unequivocal. “The UK Defence Secretary is a US government agent,” said one netizen. “May is amazing,” claimed another. (Amazing is not a description that May has been on the receiving end of much lately. More typically, the most liked comment on a Daily Mail article covering Pompeo’s speech suggested that “it’s no good telling May anything… she’s deaf and blind and clinically insane.”)
Yet if there is one thing successive British governments have been known for it is trying to deepen trade relationships, no matter who the other party. Declassified documents show that this was also Thatcher’s chief priority when Hua Guofeng (Chairman Mao’s immediate successor) made the first ever visit by a Chinese leader to the UK in the autumn of 1979.
A briefing note by her private secretary for foreign affairs concluded that the government intended to “impress Hua with Britain as a stable and prosperous society and as a source of top level industry, agriculture, energy and defence equipment and technology.”
It is ironic that 40 years later, the UK is ready to rely on a Chinese network equipment provider because it does not have a Huawei of its own. In a lengthy article, Britain’s Guardian newspaper lamented (not for the first time) the loss of a domestic manufacturing base.
Some UK netizens agreed. The most liked comment on the Guardian article argued that Britain’s “economic plan for the last 25 years has been to sell everything we own ourselves so we can buy other people’s stuff. Eventually, you run out of things to sell and end up poor.”
Signs that the UK might yet capitulate to US pressure, were also evident on Wednesday. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told reporters that the UK had not made a final decision about Huawei and would never compromise its ability to share information with the US.
Hunt’s comment hints that the UK may end up toeing the line with other members of the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence alliance. Of the five only Canada is also yet to make a final decision about Huawei’s 5G access and also just as importantly the fate of the Chinese firm’s CFO, Meng Wanzhou. She spent Wednesday at a Canadian court seeking a stay on extradition to the US. Her legal fight could takes years. The next court date for Meng was set for September 23.
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