As one of Huawei’s top executives in America, Andy Purdy, the Chinese tech giant’s US chief security officer, has come up with a distinctly American response to those who would call him a traitor. He repeats PeeWee Herman’s famous line: “I know you are, but what am I?”
Purdy is nothing like the dorky comic TV character he quotes to hit back at bashers on social media. And there is certainly nothing funny or frivolous about his role at Huawei, or his odd odyssey from US Homeland Security Department official to spokesman for the Chinese behemoth on center stage of the Tech Cold War, .
“We’re on the precipice of whether we are going to turn in the direction of more isolationism or Cold War stuff which is not going to help anybody,” Purdy told Business Insider in an interview.
He made the statement the day before President Trump told reporters, “We’re not going to be doing business with Huawei,” reaffirming the ban on US agencies and companies buying Huawei’s products.
Symbol of China’s rise in tech
Huawei, a symbol of China’s rise as a tech power, has been a prominent target of the Trump Administration. In December, Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Canada on US charges that she violated trade sanctions. Given the enormous control the Chinese government, and specifically the ruling Chinese Communist Party, has on the country’s economy, Huawei has also been accused of being a potential conduit for spying for Beijing.
All these have kept Purdy busy in the last few months as he emerged as the most visible Huawei spokesperson in the US. His message has been consistent: that Huawei is a tech behemoth caught in the middle of a trade war between China and the U.S.
“We’re getting used as a pawn in the trade talks,” Purdy said. “It isn’t helping anybody.”
Purdy says his message to President Trump would be: “I couldn’t agree more that addressing national security risks is absolutely critical. But we shouldn’t cut our nose to spite our face.”
That’s because the ban on Huawei hurts American consumers and workers, he argues. He said Huawei has around 40 major US customers, mainly telecommunications carriers operating in rural areas. As a result of the ban, those customers will likely be hit with higher prices. The ban could also hurt US suppliers, he said.
“If we can’t buy the stuff from the US, we’ve got to find it somewhere else or develop more of it ourselves,” Purdy said.
He denied that Huawei is a tool of the Chinese government. In fact, he stressed, Huawei’s hope is to help come up with policies and standards that countries like the US and China could adopt to maintain stronger, more secure networks that no one would be able to hack into. It’s a “comprehensive approach,” he said, that “has to be applied to everybody.”
It would certainly also apply to the US which is also known for hacking into the networks, he said. Purdy points to National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations on a clandestine NSA program for acquiring data from tech giants,including Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook. He also cited allegations that the NSA hacked into software and networking gear from companies like Microsoft, Cisco and Huawei for spying operations.
“People ask me: ‘Should we trust China? Should we trust Huawei?'” he said. “I say, ‘We shouldn’t trust anybody.'”
“I’m basically an advocate for safer cyberspace in America,” he added.
‘We shouldn’t trust anybody’
Experts from various fields — technology, cybersecurity, and intelligence — disagree with the way Purdy frames Huawei’s dilemma, the challenges in cybersecurity, and the roles of governments, particularly the US and China, in securing and infiltrating networks.
“Huawei is in the crosshairs of the international trade war, however they are not innocent,” analyst Ray Wang of Constellation Research told Business Insider. “Purdy knows how the US government works and how the Chinese government influences Huawei. Neither side is innocent in global espionage.”
But “in the cybersecurity realm, the question is not whose tech is secure, it’s whose national allegiance do you trust,” he added. And the choice is clear, Wang said: a generally open and decentralized system like the US, or a closed centralized one like the one in place in China.
Charity Wright, a Texas-based cyber-threat intelligence analyst, echoed a similar view. “Technology is becoming a tool of the state,” she told Business Insider. But “China’s government is infamous for having deep roots inside domestic technology companies.”
China vs. US
Analyst Steve Allen of S2C Partners, who has done business in China and with companies that have operated there for years, said Huawei “is not resident evil.” “They are merely playing by government rulebooks,” he told Business Insider. “The only difference is, it’s the Chinese government versus the US government.”
While the US has not had a stellar history on different areas, including respecting the privacy of citizens, it is also widely accepted that China’s government has an even worse record, experts say.
“In the end, it is simply that we can’t believe the Chinese government would behave better than the US government has in the past,” Nicholas Weaver, a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute in Berkeley told Business Insider.
“If the Chinese government says ‘Huawei, do X,’ they have to do that. After all, China is the government currently engaged in soft ethnic cleansing of Uyghurs in the east, and a bunch of other bad acts. There is no way Huawei could meaningfully reject a Chinese government request. Which means the real question that you should ask Mr. Purdy is: ‘Do you honestly trust the Chinese government to behave substantially better than the US government has in the past?'”
Purdy’s own past makes his current role at Huawei striking, even surprising. He worked for years in the federal government. In fact, he once played a key role developing US cybersecurity policy.
In fact, he was part of the team that drafted the US cybersecurity strategy under President George W. Bush in 2003. Purdy, a lifelong Republican, also helped set up the National Cyber Security Division of the newly-created Department of Homeland Security.
How did he end up working for a Chinese corporation? In a way, a Republican president paved the way
Purdy, who is in his 60s, was in college when Richard Nixon embarked on a bold attempt to establish diplomatic ties with China in the early 1970s in what is now considered one of his notable achievements in an otherwise tumultuous administration that ended in scandal and his resignation. The Nixon diplomatic offensive set the stage for stronger economic ties that subsequently propelled the growth of the US and Chinese tech industries.
Purdy even played a minor role in a highlight of the Nixon outreach to China during the US visit of the Chinese table tennis team. The tour included a stop at William and Mary University in Virginia where Purdy was among the students to welcome the visiting Chinese players. He’s shown shaking hands with one of the visitors in a photo featured in the college paper.
“That was part of the ping pong diplomacy back in the day,” he said. “That was a time when we were cautious in our optimism about the idea of opening up a relationship with China and the hope that could mean for the future.”
“If we’re going in a different direction, that could hurt all of us,” he said. “That’s what I fear most.”
Huawei’s man in Washington
In a way, hiring someone like Purdy to represent Huawei in the US was a smart move for the Chinese tech giant, experts say
“Andy Purdy’s background is impressive and he has the kind of credibility on this subject that could benefit Huawei’s message going forward,” Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies Inc. told Business Insider. “But he has a lot of historical bias to deal with which makes this his task more difficult.”
Allen of S2C Partners also said Purdy is a “good guy for Huawei to present in Washington D.C.” at a time of heightened xenophobia.
“Especially with Trump’s nativist base, the last thing you want is a Chinese face speaking halting English,” he said. “But in the big scheme of things, realpolitik rules.”
While Purdy turns to a comic figure from American pop culture to hit back at critics, Allen thinks the words of a warrior-philosopher from ancient China offer important insights into the brewing tech cold war.
“I think Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’ is on everyone’s reading list,” he said.
One Sun Tzu passage if particularly noteworthy in the current climate, he said: “All warfare is based on deception.”
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