Meng-Michaels saga is over, Canada is returning to its Huawei 5G controversy and potential for public reaction

Canada will make an announcement in the coming weeks about Huawei Communications’ involvement in this country’s 5G infrastructure, says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The Chinese company has already been banned or its presence in 5G infrastructure was restricted by some of Canada’s security allies, and Trudeau told reporters on Tuesday that his government will reveal its own intentions soon.

“Many, if not all, Canadian telecommunications companies have started to remove Huawei from their networks and are moving forward in ways that do not involve them,” Trudeau told reporters.

“We continue to weigh and analyze the different options, but we will certainly make announcements in the coming weeks.”

The decision on Huawei’s involvement is part of a broader national security review of next-generation wireless technology. The new technology is up to 100 times faster than existing 4G technology.

But the decision had apparently stalled when Canada’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China soared during the saga of Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou and the “two Michaels” of Canada.

One pollster said those events would make it difficult for the Canadian government to now allow Huawei to access the 5G network.

Failure to block Huawei’s participation would lead to a swift reaction from Canadians, in fact, predicted Mario Canseco, president of Vancouver-based polling firm Research Co.

Canseco has been tracking Canadians’ views on Huawei since 2018 and said strong opposition to allowing the company to enter Canada’s 5G network has prevailed.

In a poll Canseco conducted in May 2020, three out of four Canadians who were asked were against allowing Huawei’s participation in 5G networks. Canseco said he doubts much has changed. Other polls have consistently shown an unfavorable view of the regime in Beijing by respondents, including one published in July where only 21 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion.

The Meng and the Michaels case, now over, probably won’t have made the public feel more comfortable with Huawei’s participation in Canada’s 5G, he said.

“There is a growing animosity that is not going to go away so easily just because you develop positively after three negative years,” he said.

Meng was initially detained at the request of the United States in December 2018 while trying to pass through Vancouver. US authorities sought his arrest on charges of fraud, including misleading a bank about Huawei’s business involvement in Iran through a subsidiary company.

Shortly after his arrest, two Canadians in China, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, were arrested on espionage charges and kept secret. After more than 1,000 days, the Canadians were released on Friday, the same day that Meng’s extradition request was withdrawn after she signed a deferred prosecution agreement with US authorities.

But even before the Meng drama unfolded, Canada was already facing controversy over whether it should allow Huawei’s involvement in 5G.

Security experts have raised concerns that such equipment could easily be used to spy on Canadians, a charge that Huawei Canada rejects.

Canadian ISPs chose to partner with European companies for equipment rather than Huawei. But the Canadian government is under pressure to declare that the company’s equipment will not be allowed on the 5G network.

David Skillicorn, a professor at Queen’s University School of Computing, said the concern about Huawei is that the Chinese government could order Huawei to interfere with Canada’s internet or spy on Canadians.

He said the company’s network switches could, in theory, be used to divert Internet traffic to China, where it can be analyzed; degrade traffic for certain directions; or even turn the switch off completely.

“You have a tremendous amount of power to dynamically and, in a really disgusting way, destroy all the communication skills we’ve all come to depend on,” said Skillicorn. “And the problem is, you can’t really defend yourself against this once the change is in place.”

Huawei’s spokesperson, Alykhan Velshi, said the company already has networking equipment in Canada’s existing internet infrastructure.

Velshi said the company has never received a complaint from the Canadian government or customers about the safety of its equipment.

“Once we sell the equipment, it belongs to the operator and we don’t have the ability to access that equipment without the operator’s permission,” Velshi said. “We don’t have any remote access.”

Velshi said, “What the government decides is for the government to decide,” noting that the company still sells other consumer devices and other products. He said the company is still expanding and conducting research and development in Canada.

Charles Burton, a China expert at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa, said he is concerned that the Canadian government will give the green light to Huawei’s involvement in the “periphery” of Canada’s telecommunications systems rather than the core of the same.

Burton said he has already heard that it was suggested that Canada should “go back to the way we engage with China before December 2018” with the Meng and Michaels situation now over, including full access to Canada’s 5G for Huawei.

He is concerned that the liberal government may listen to advisers who sympathize with Huawei for commercial reasons.

“A government that appears to be in a stable political position could be prepared to act against a huge protest,” he said.

Canseco said the company has made efforts to improve its image in Canada, including sponsoring Hockey Night in Canada, but that they have not moved the needle in public opinion.

He said Canadians expect the federal government to declare that Huawei will not participate in the country’s 5G infrastructure, so if the government does, the increase in popularity would be minimal. On the other hand, he said, not doing so could generate a backlash from the public.

“It would continually be seen as something that was done only for the benefit of (China),” Canseco said. “I think it would definitely be problematic for the government.”

With files from Bloomberg and Alex Boutilier

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