Back Doors, Remote Access, Vulnerable Code - Are Chinese Routers Spying On Us?

Huawei staff performing routine maintenance
Huawei staff performing routine maintenance
Paul Laubacher

Chinese routers from Huawei and ZTE are "a threat" for the United States, or even the world, according to a U.S. Congressional intelligence committee report made public on October 8. The committee suspects that these machines, which transmit Internet communications, could be working for the Chinese government.

With this report, the American Congress has launched its own attack against the two Chinese telecom firms, already singled out by the U.S. Department of Defense, as well as, in France, by Senator Jean-Marie Bockel.

After a yearlong investigation, the congressional committee concluded that two the telecom giants are a real danger to American security. Their recommendation is simple: Huawei and ZTE must not be allowed to sign contracts or make acquisitions in the United States.

The House Intelligence Committee's conclusions are stark. "Based on available classified and unclassified information, Huawei and ZTE cannot be trusted to be free of foreign state influence and thus pose a security threat to the United States and to our systems."

The Beijing link

The congressmen launched their investigation because of the unclear relations between the Chinese government and the two companies. They believe that Beijing could use the two companies' products to conduct economic and military warfare, or even cyber-attacks. With Huawei and ZTE, according to the committee, China would have "the means, opportunity and motive to use telecommunications companies for malicious purposes."

The American authorities have suspected for a long time that chips, routers, and other digital equipment from China could be equipped with "back doors," hidden access that would allow an ill-intentioned remote user to connect, giving the Chinese government the chance to access sensitive information as it passes through the machines.

Questioned by the committee, the heads of the two Chinese companies responded that they are businessmen and have nothing to do with politics. "The integrity and independence of our organization and its business practices are respected and considered worthy of confidence and the integrity in more than 150 different countries," Huawei's vice president William Plummer said in its defense. ZTE is remaining silent.

Needless to say, the companies’ answers concerning their relations with the Chinese government did not satisfy the committee.

Defense risks

This is not the first time that the two Chinese manufacturers have been under fire. In August, Felix Lindner and Gregor Kopf, computer security specialists at Recurity Labs, criticized the vulnerability of Huawei's machines. "You get what you pay for, sorry. These machines have serious security issues."

According to Felix Lindner, Huawei routers are actually dangerous. "In my eyes, the greatest danger is that you don't know how vulnerable it is, you're left in the dark." He blames the company for not providing any instructions to their consumers. He also says that the machines use "1990s-style code" which is "too vulnerable to intrusions."

Even earlier, the alarm was sounded by Jean-Marie Bockel, a centrist French senator and former secretary of state for defense. On July 19, the senator presented a report on French cyber-defense. It proposed "banning at-risk routers and other core network equipment." On his short list of brands to ban: Huawei and ZTE.

According to the Bockel report, "There is nothing to prevent a country that produces network routers from inserting devices for surveillance or interception, or even a system that completely interrupts all communication at any time." Bock also asked for a ban on the sale or use of Chinese equipment to companies that manage Internet communications.

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Chinese Students Now Required To Learn To Think Like Xi Jinping

"Xi Jinping Thought" ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university.

Children from Congtai Elementary School, Handan City, Hebei Province

Maximilian Kalkhof

BEIJING — It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education.

The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader.

Xi Jinping has been the head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for almost 10 years. In 2017, at a party convention, he presented a doctrine in the most riveting of party prose: "Xi Jinping's ideas of socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new age."

Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself. In other words, to make China great again!

Communist curriculum replaces global subjects

This doctrine has sent shockwaves through China since 2017. It's been echoed in newspapers, on TV, and screamed from posters and banners hung in many cities. But now, the People's Republic is going one step further: It's bringing "Xi Jinping Thought" into the schools.

Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation?

The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

photo of books about Xi-Jinping on a shelf at the 2021 Hong Kong Book Fair

Books about Xi-Jinping at the 2021 Hong Kong Book Fair

Alex Chan Tsz Yuk/SOPA Images/ZUMA

— Photo:

Targeting pop culture

The regime is also taking massive action against the entertainment industry. Popstar Kris Wu was arrested on charges of rape. Movies and TV series starring actor Zhao Wei have started to disappear from Chinese streaming platforms. The reason is unclear.

What the developments do show is that China is attempting to decouple from the West with increasing insistence. Beijing wants to protect its youth from Western excesses, from celebrity worship, super wealth and moral decline.

A nationalist blogger recently called for a "profound change in the economy, finance, culture and politics," a "revolution" and a "return from the capitalists to the masses." Party media shared the text on their websites. It appears the analysis caused more than a few nods in the party headquarters.

Dictatorships are always afraid of pluralism.

Caspar Welbergen, managing director of the Education Network China, an initiative that aims to intensify school exchanges between Germany and China, says that against this background, the curriculum reform is not surprising.

"The emphasis on 'Xi Jinping Thought' is being used in all areas of society," he says. "It is almost logical that China is now also using it in the education system."

Needless to say, the doctrine doesn't make student exchanges with China any easier.

Dictatorships are always afraid of color, pluralism and independent thinking citizens. And yet, Kristin Kupfer, a Sinology professor at the University of Trier, suggests that ideologically charged school lessons should not be interpreted necessarily as a sign of weakness of the CCP.

From the point of view of a totalitarian regime, she explains, this can also be interpreted as a signal of strength. "It remains to be seen whether the Chinese leadership can implement this so thoroughly," Kupfer adds. "Initial reactions from teachers and parents on social media show that such a widespread attempt to control opinion has raised fears and discontent in the population."

Die Welt
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