On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Calling the kettle black

TALK about hypocrisy. When Huawei’s global cybersecurity and privacy officer, John Suffolk, appeared before a hearing at the House of Commons on Monday, he was bombarded with a barrage of tough questions.

He was there to convince lawmakers – who were deliberating the safety of Britain’s telecommunications infrastructure – that Huawei had conducted security compliance exercises.

But the Chinese technology giant is up against an American-led effort to place a blanket global ban on it.

It’s clear that the United States is pressuring its allies, including the United Kingdom, to put the squeeze on Huawei, the world’s largest maker of telecommunications equipment. What has ignited a controversy, however, although it was perhaps a tiny fraction of the hearing, was a question by Norman Lamb, chairman of Britain’s Science and Technology Committee.

The hearing became a tense affair when Members of Parliament asked Suffolk if Huawei made moral considerations before selling equipment to oppressive governments with a history of human rights abuse.

He cited an Australian research report that said Huawei provided equipment that Chinese authorities use to monitor the Uighurs, a Muslim minority group in China’s north-western region.

“I don’t think it’s for us to make such judgments,” Suffolk said. “The question is whether it’s legal in the country where we operate.”

“You’re a moral vacuum,” a Member of Parliament then retorted.

Treading the moral high ground like this reeks of hypocrisy, especially since both the US and UK are trading with many countries with shambolic human rights records. They have even aided and ensured the survival of these regimes, for strategic and economic reasons.

Take Saudi Arabia for instance. No country would want to mess with this oil-rich nation. American president Donald Trump, and any British Prime Minister of the hour, wouldn’t let out a squeak if there were any form of human rights oppression there, and it’s common knowledge that the law is perversely flouted.

So, will the UK do business with the Saudi Arabians? Of course! Total goods exports from the UK to Saudi Arabia in 2017 were reportedly worth about £4.2bil (RM22bil), an increase of 120% compared with 10 years earlier. Goods imports from Saudi Arabia were worth £2.4bil (RM12.7bil) (also more than double the figure 10 years earlier). So, the UK had a surplus of £1.8bil (RM9.5bil) in goods trade.

The top UK export categories encompass various types of machinery, aircraft, arms and vehicles, including £280mil (RM1.48bil) worth in cars.

Oil accounted for more than half of the imports from Saudi Arabia, including crude and refined products. Other goods comprised machinery and electrical supplies, and photographic, cinematographic and medical equipment, reads a report.

It said although the UK produces crude oil from the North Sea, and to a limited extent on land as well, it has been more than a decade since the island nation was self-sufficient. Saudi Arabia accounted for about 3% of British oil imports last year.

And with so much money at stake, it will be insane to condemn the high-profile disappearance (or is that mutilation?) of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Trump threatened “severe punishment” if Saudi Arabia was found responsible, but of course, evidence is insufficient. How convenient.

Speculation is rife about what happened to Khashoggi. Turkish officials believe he may have been murdered when he visited the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Saudi Arabia denies the allegation and says it would respond to sanctions.

Research by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a think tank which monitors the global weapons industry, reportedly puts Britain in second place as a supplier of “major arms” to Saudi Arabia, behind the United States and ahead of France.

And then there’s Israel. It has a long history of oppressing the Palestinians, and its record of human rights violations is atrocious, but trade between the two countries is progressively increasing.

According to the “Jerusalem Post”, bilateral trade in 2014 amounted to US$6.3bil (RM26bil) and the following year, it shot up to US$7.5bil (RM31bil) and by 2017, it hit US$9.1bil (RM37bil), and the figures have been steadily growing.

The Middle East Eye reported that Britain has approved the sale of arms to Israel in a deal worth US$445mil (RM1.8bil) since the 2014 Gaza war, a transaction including components for drones, combat aircraft and helicopters, along with spare parts for sniper rifles.

“The government data will raise fresh concerns that British-made weapons are being used by the Israeli military in the Occupied Territories, amid fears that components in sniper rifles used to kill scores of Palestinian civilians in recent weeks could have been made in the UK.”

The US also supports authoritarian regimes in at least 45 “less than democratic nations and territories that today host scores of US military bases,” the ones the size of not-so-small American towns to tiny outposts. Together, these bases are home to tens of thousands of US troops.

“To ensure basing access from Central America to Africa, Asia to the Middle East, US officials have repeatedly collaborated with fiercely anti-democratic regimes and militaries implicated in torture, murder, the suppression of democratic rights, the systematic oppression of women and minorities, and numerous other human rights abuses.

“Forget the recent White House invitations and Trump’s public compliments. For nearly three-quarters of a century, the United States has invested tens of billions of dollars in maintaining bases and troops in such repressive states.

“From Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Republican and Democratic administrations alike have, since World War II, regularly shown preference for maintaining bases in undemocratic and often despotic states,” wrote Associate Professor David Vine of the American University in HuffPost.

As the US pushes for a global ban on Huawei, the line of argument has become more blurred and bizarre.

The battle is essentially over technological leadership, and clearly, the US is worried that China will control the 5G universe.

It’s true that China is no angel when it concerns human rights.

After all, it is a communist country with no free elections, but few of us would buy into the rationale that Huawei needs to be banned because of China’s poor treatment of the Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, China.

This isn’t a moral vacuum, but a serious vacuum in the head.