In May 1999 I received a call from the Hong Kong Office of IBM asking whether we, in the Enterprise Resource Planning implementation team of IBM UK, would be interested in helping a Chinese telecommunication equipment manufacturer to implement their Integrated Supply Chain management project. The reason we received this call was that within the IBM world, we were at the core of the Package Enabled Business Transformation (PEBT) team that helped clients implement process and organisation change around their technology implementation programme: aligning people, process and technology to create a ‘transformed’ business with improved efficiency and performance.
Being someone who had experience of working in Hong Kong in the early ‘90s, and in other areas of the world, the challenge of running a project in a country that was rapidly emerging from thirty years of central economic management, and one with a rich and long history and culture, was an exciting prospect. Fortunately, several of my team in London had a similar sense of adventure, and despite the alternative opportunity of working with other global telecommunications companies from the developed world, this seemed to offer a lot more interest to us than that of the traditional western world. None of us realised then that this project would create a relationship with the region that, for one at least, Joseph Smith the ISC Project Manager, resulted in a twenty-year working experience with Huawei, and others of us with regular engagement. All of us, however, made long term and genuine friendships and developed an understanding of the business environment in emerging China, and Huawei, that has helped us all in our careers ever since.
However, back in 1999, no one had heard of Huawei (which, very roughly translated means ‘For the Chinese People’) a company that had built itself up from scratch developing basic telecommunications switching gear for the China market, with at that time one ‘overseas’ sale to Hong Kong, then only two years into its return to Chinese sovereignty. Looking back from the current perspective of Huawei being one of China’s proudest entrepreneurial achievements, it was not at all clear that the company would survive as the Chinese government itself was supporting other manufacturers because it saw Huawei as a private company. Huawei very much had to support its own growth from internal and external commercial funds: a growth that they have clearly achieved.
At that time the ambition was to create a global market for its products, which at that stage had not reached a level of quality to compete with the best the world could deliver. It had commodity products that competed on price. However, the company wanted to grow and from the start invested around 15-20% of revenue in technology R&D that formed the foundation of its technological innovation. The ISC was a programme that would create the backbone to this global expansion, enabling the company to efficiently and profitably deliver products to global markets. I feel proud to know that my team’s supply chain programme and their design work contributed to this achievement. With the final warehousing technology implemented with Siemens technologies and the core Oracle ERP properly configured to realise the enterprise-wide capabilities needed to expand, the company aligned all its activities with ISC and its sister project the Integrated Product Development (IDP) programme, to build the foundations for its future growth and success.
Beyond the business side, by far the most rewarding aspect of our work was the building of personal friendships. The five of us from London, in true Anglo-centric tradition, spoke only English, so we were apprehensive of how we could do the work. This fear was augmented by the Hong Kong office telling us that you cannot use the usual workshop approach in China as you need to teach and direct styles there. Both assertions proved wrong, and we found that through regular social activities that British and Chinese people shared a similar sense of humour – maybe it was the get-togethers after work, but the personal barriers fell quickly, and to this day people we knew then are still friends.
What was most impressive was the ability of the enthusiastic cohort of young PhDs who made up the Huawei side of the team to begin to understand English, so that over a period of three-six months, the tedious bi-lingual presentations with us speaking English with a translator following, migrated to the team conducting work in English. Many, of course, had some English, but it seemed that working with native speakers brought out and improved their capacity in the language. It is a weakness of Anglo speakers that they do not spend time learning a second or third language, and those mandarin expressions we did learn from our colleagues were not always fit for polite company, but the ability to work together to achieve project objectives was impressive.
Looking back over the last twenty years and current controversies around Huawei, I often don’t recognise the portrayal of the company that I knew so well as a client. Furthermore, when I reflect on some of the private conversations that I had with my Chinese colleagues, it is clear to me that many current commentators are applying an understanding of China that firstly does not recognise some of the internal changes that have occurred and secondly, is often out of date.
My view of the company is that it is a product of the burst of economic development and freedoms from Deng Xia Ping’s opening of market economics in Shenzhen. Also from what I know of the Huawei senior management, it would surprise me if they were complicit in building insecure systems for their global customers: it would be a market killer. Whether Huawei products are inherently more insecure than other international supplier’s technologies, I strongly doubt. Intelligence services spend significant time and money working out how to crack all these systems so that no system is safe.
This might be difficult for many people to swallow, as they see the ability of the Chinese Communist Party to demand information to be tantamount to an international spying charter. The absence of any actual evidence of this seems to support my view of Huawei.
What is needed now is a more robust approach to cybersecurity and I would say that company’s like Huawei would have an interest in pursuing such a strategy, maybe further developing their experience with the UK’s GCHQ. The fact is, all systems are vulnerable and to pretend otherwise is to create complacency in the use of western sourced technology and to miss out on the development of technology that businesses like Huawei can deliver.