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Congressman C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger

Representing the 2nd District of Maryland

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Wall Street Journal: Trump Shouldn’t Give ZTE a Pass

May 17, 2018
Op-Ed
The company threatens Americans’ privacy and America’s security.

By Dutch Ruppersberger and  Mike Rogers

Nobody cheered louder than we did when the Trump administration in April announced that Chinese telecom company ZTE was officially on the U.S. government’s trade blacklist. We have been sounding the alarm about ZTE since 2012, not because we feared they were secretly selling American-made equipment to Iran and North Korea—although that didn’t surprise us—but because we have long suspected the Chinese government uses ZTE to spy on Americans through the cellphone parts it manufactures.

As then-leaders of the House Intelligence Committee, we issued a bipartisan report outlining our concerns. We traveled to Hong Kong and interviewed ZTE executives. Their responses were incomplete and often evasive. They failed to answer questions about ZTE’s compliance with U.S. intellectual-property and export-control laws and wouldn’t provide clear answers about its research activities, particularly as they relate to military projects. They even suggested that answering our questions would leave the company criminally liable under China’s state-secrets laws.

The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission contended that the Chinese government has influence over its telecom companies as early as 2011. The Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency concluded in 2013 that one of ZTE’s compatriots—Huawei—provided sensitive information to the Chinese government. In 2015, the Federal Bureau of Investigation determined that the Chinese government could access U.S. business communications through Chinese-made technology.

Everyone agrees that companies like ZTE are a major cyberthreat. With access to telecommunications equipment—including the cellphones and tablets that are indispensable to modern life—China can spy on all Americans. If the U.S. were ever to go to war with China, Beijing could theoretically disable American cellphones, or take control of American computer networks.

Our concerns remain as strong as they were six years ago when we published our report. Congress and the Federal Communications Commission are finally taking notice. A bipartisan bill in the House right now will take ZTE and Huawei out of the federal supply chain. Similar provisions were included in the National Defense Authorization Act, which hits the House floor next month. The FCC is poised to ban the use of taxpayer money for the purchase of gear made by ZTE and Huawei.

President Trump announced sanctions against ZTE in April for skirting embargo laws targeting Iran and North Korea. We applauded this move and believed it to be a step in the right direction. His subsequent about-face is vexing.

The president tweeted his concerns about the loss of Chinese jobs. We would argue that losing those jobs is worth it if it allows the U.S. to shore up a significant vulnerability in its supply chain and communications network.

ZTE presents a clear and present danger to U.S. national security. China is a near-peer competitor using all available national tools to advance its aims, and ZTE is one of those tools. It is both an intelligence-collection asset and a commercial enterprise, one that enjoys the patronage of the Chinese government on both accounts.

President Trump should revert to his original position and emphasize that China’s market manipulation undercuts American business. China continues to rob American companies of their intellectual property at a cost of somewhere between $225 and $600 billion annually, according to U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer. Helping adversarial and subsidized companies like ZTE and Huawei will only add to their market share. The result will be fewer jobs for Americans in the telecommunications and electronics industries and higher prices for U.S. consumers.

Some 95% of Americans own cellphones. The security of these devices and the networks on which they operate should not be a bargaining chip. The U.S. should be doing more to guarantee that China isn’t listening in to American phone conversations.

The stakes are high. Chinese telecommunications companies are producing far more equipment at cheaper prices than their foreign competitors. Mr. Trump must stand by his original decision and increase pressure on ZTE and the Chinese government. He shouldn’t give them a free pass.

Mr. Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat, was ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, 2011-15. Mr. Rogers, a CNN national security commentator, was the committee’s chairman during the same period.