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U.K. To Bar British Companies From Buying 5G Equipment From Huawei


The United Kingdom is banning Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant, from developing Britain's 5G network. The U.S. welcomes this decision. It's just the latest move in a global struggle between the U.S. and China over technology, business and political power. As NPR's Frank Langfitt reports, it's also a sign of how China's increasingly assertive diplomacy has backfired.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: The British government will forbid companies here from buying Huawei equipment for 5G beginning next year and require the removal of all Huawei equipment by 2027. The government says the decision was triggered by U.S. sanctions on Huawei suppliers that could make the company's equipment easier for China to use for spying. Oliver Dowden is the U.K.'s digital secretary.


OLIVER DOWDEN: The security and resilience of our telecoms networks is of paramount importance. We have never and will never compromise that security in pursuit of economic prosperity. It is a fact that the U.S. has introduced additional sanctions on Huawei, and as facts have changed, so has our approach.

LANGFITT: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hailed the news, praising the U.K. for banning what he called an untrusted, high-risk vendor. Huawei insists it will never allow its equipment to be used for spying and called today's outcome a disappointment that would just raise costs for U.K. mobile phone users. Last week Liu Xiaoming, China's ambassador to London, warned the British government against moves that could anger Beijing.


LIU XIAOMING: We want to be your friend. We want to be your partner. But if you want to make China a hostile country, you will have to bear the consequences.

LANGFITT: Threatening language like that is a big shift from decades of much more modest diplomacy. Liu is known as one of China's new wolf warrior diplomats. It's a reference to patriotic action movies about a Chinese Special Forces operative. Steve Tsang is a professor of political science at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He's not impressed with this new approach.

STEVE TSANG: I think it is a very dumb move on the part of the Chinese government.

LANGFITT: Tsang says Britons used to have a positive view of China, but he says that changed after Chinese officials tried to suppress information about the coronavirus outbreak, used shipments of personal protective equipment as a political tool and suggested, without evidence, the virus had been brought to Wuhan by military personnel from the United States, Britain's closest ally.

TSANG: Chinese responses to COVID-19, both in terms of the disinformation campaign and the weaponization of PPEs, I think really caused people to change their mind and thought that, uh-oh, we haven't seen that side before.

LANGFITT: Relations spiraled downward even more this month when China implemented a national security law that restricts freedoms in Hong Kong, a former British colony. The U.K. has responded by saying it will offer a path to citizenship for up to 3 million Hong Kongers, an extraordinary change.

TIM SUMMERS: It's an emotional policy decision, rather than a rational one.

LANGFITT: Tim Summers, who lives in Hong Kong, is a fellow at Chatham House, the London think tank. He believes the decision to offer citizenship is a bid for relevance against a far more powerful China.

SUMMERS: Sort of speaks emotionally to, you know, the desire that Britain can be seen to be being influential still in the world today.

LANGFITT: As for the Huawei decision, Steve Tsang expects China will retaliate in some way.

TSANG: If the Chinese Communist Party will not treat us with any basic degree of respect, we have to still defend our basic core value and not bend our knees.

LANGFITT: And Tsang thinks the relationship between the two countries could be on the cusp of major change.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.