5G Technology Under Covid-19’s Shadow

Conspiracy theorists join Western spymasters in pursuit of China’s Huawei

By: Joyce Chen

YouTube has just announced it will ban all videos alleging that 5G data networks are transmitting the Covid-19 virus, a conspiracy theory that has exploded on Facebook and Instagram and has worrying connotations for Huawei Technologies Co, the Shenzhen-based ICT company that leads the global implementation of the technology.

More than 20 transmission masts have been set afire (above) in the UK in the false belief that 5G is sickening people in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which has taken more than 95,000 lives. That has forced the four major mobile carriers O2, EE, Vodafone and Three to release a joint statement denying the claims and reminding the public that their services are “critical to keeping your communities connected.”

Largely unchallenged by social media websites until now, the 5G conspiracy also argues that immune systems can be weakened by radio frequency radiation and has been supported by public figures such as the actor Woody Harrelson.

These unfounded claims have gained traction from the same factors that led the western world to pin the origins of the virus on bat-eating, despite a lack of definitive evidence.

Aside from prejudice, the lack of trust in Chinese technology is pervasive and largely legitimate, hence the original pressure on the UK government to not enter a deal with Huawei, the Chinese state-backed company that has become one of the world’s biggest multinational telecommunications concerns. Despite deeming the company “high-risk” over the legal requirement that it must have a backdoor to the Chinese Communist Party, the UK government ultimately defied Washington’s pressure to join the US in boycotting Huawei.

The UK government insisted, however, that Huawei technology not be used with sensitive data (e.g. at nuclear sites or national security centers) and its ownership of any mobile network would be limited to 35 percent, due to its “opaque processes” and “low cybersecurity.”

Another possible factor is the lack of understanding of what 5G actually involves, and indeed miseducation about technology. 5G is essentially a far faster (up to 100x) and smarter network than 4G, with particularly promising and unique potential in developing artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

Public fear stems from the fact that 5G uses higher frequencies. Very strong, proximal radio waves have the potential to internally heat body tissue. However, this is simply impossible from 5G networks as the energy that the waves carry is weaker than visible light and entirely negligible for humans. Furthermore, the coronavirus is only transmitted via direct contact with droplets from an infected person.

Ultimately, in a time where critical patients of coronavirus are forced to die alone with their last glimpse of their family through FaceTime, and masses of crucial data on patients are stored on the Cloud, this is not only a misguided trend but potentially disastrous for public health.

Will the coronavirus force the UK government to reconsider its deal with Huawei? It is unclear to what extent the prime minister’s office blames China for the coronavirus, as it is doubtless that the CCP’s manipulation of infection and mortality rates, delay in shutting down international flights and its potentially months-late international report on the virus contributed to the spiraling of Covid-19 in other, underprepared countries.

That being said, the rapid spread of the virus in the UK is surely also a result of failures by the government, which originally tried to adopt a ‘herd-immunity’ policy by not shutting bars, restaurants or schools nor closing borders and international flights from infected areas, and is currently distributing tests at a shockingly insufficient rate.

With increasing public pressure from journalists and angry, bereft citizens across the political spectrum, the government will have an extremely difficult decision to make. Scapegoating China is the easy option for appeasing the public, and one that the US has already opted for. However, it not only has severe ramifications for all Asians living abroad, but crucially would leave the UK marooned without Chinese goodwill post-Brexit.

If the UK government decides to reduce its relationship with Huawei, it would be considered a personal offense in China, where news of disgruntled Tory MPs asking for £351 billion in reparations for coronavirus has already caused outrage on WeChat. News stories about international Sinophobia and racially-driven incidents are only weaponized within China to create a greater sense of national unity and self-victimization, while the country can also pat itself on the back for effectively eliminating the number of new deaths.

Unless all major Western actors band together to condemn China, this is not a financially viable option. Furthermore, if the UK rejects Huawei, then it will be left without universal 5G altogether, rendering the country even less competitive in possibly the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression.

The outbreak of coronavirus has frequently been called the worst international crisis since WWII due to its shutdown of all normal activities and the huge number of innocent deaths. As with all international crises, a culprit must be identified, deserved or not. It remains to be seen how the UK government will rehash relations with China, but with a lack of options after leaving the EU, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is unlikely to be as harsh as President Trump.

What is clear from the arson on mobile masts and the ever-increasing number of racial attacks on Asians across Britain is that, regardless of the government’s decision, the people have already chosen their scapegoat.

Joyce Chen is an Asia Sentinel intern