How Washington went to war against the Chinese smartphone giant, and how the runaway conflict could spell the end of a single, global internet.
On the morning of December 1, 2018, the vast central plaza in Mexico City was thronged by tens of thousands of people. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a left-wing populist, had just been sworn in as Mexico’s 58th president. In his inaugural address, he thumbed his nose at decades of neoliberal rule and promised a sweeping political and economic transformation of Mexico.
The people converging on the Plaza del Zócalo from all over the country weren’t the only ones who sensed opportunity in the new administration. At that very moment, high over the Pacific Ocean, a Chinese executive named Meng Wanzhou was winging her way from Shenzhen to Mexico.
Meng is chief financial officer of Huawei, the world’s largest manufacturer of telecommunications equipment and second-largest maker of smartphones. Though Huawei’s Android handsets are all but unknown in the United States, they are everywhere in Mexico, as they are in China, South Asia, and the Middle East. Even more ubiquitous in some 170 countries around the world are pieces of Huawei equipment that ordinary consumers rarely touch: arrays of radio antennas perched atop cell towers and electronic base stations that sit beneath them on the ground, converting between digital and radio signals. By some accounts, about 40 percent of the world’s population relies on Huawei equipment. But even with 191,000 employees and $108 billion in annual revenue, Huawei remained hungry for growth.
That desire, however, faced a formidable obstacle: the US government. For years, the US had pressured Mexico to block Huawei’s expansion within its borders. Washington argued that Huawei’s technology was an elaborate Trojan horse for Chinese government surveillance—that installing its networking equipment was akin to giving Beijing’s Ministry of State Security the ability to spy on Western computer and wireless networks.
López Obrador’s victory, however, suggested a new political moment and an opening for Huawei to strike. Meng was on her way to Mexico to secure a new beachhead for the next generation of wireless infrastructure, known as 5G. The transformation to a 5G network promised inconceivably fast wireless speeds but required a new and denser network of cellular base stations. And Huawei was the world leader in supplying precisely that equipment.