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11-min read

Poland and its Pivotal Role in the US-China Trade War

The arrest of a Chinese businessman and a Polish cybersecurity specialist sparked off an unlikely debacle that fit right into the rhythm of the US-China trade war.


Updated:July 2, 2019, 9:35 PM IST
Poland and its Pivotal Role in the US-China Trade War
The arrest of a Chinese businessman and a Polish cybersecurity specialist sparked off an unlikely debacle that fit right into the rhythm of the US-China trade war.

On a frigid morning in January, Polish internal security officers entered the Warsaw apartment of a foreign businessman, confiscated photographs, seized his electronic devices and detained him. The allegations levelled against him were sensational: An ex-diplomat who speaks Polish, he and a former Polish security official had spied on behalf of a foreign power.

The drama had elements of a classic Cold War thriller, updated for the 21st century. The predatory power was not America - Washington and Warsaw are now allies - nor Russia, Poland’s Soviet-era master. It was China. The businessman was Chinese, a salesman for the world’s largest maker of telecom networking gear, Huawei Technologies Co Ltd. And the alleged Polish traitor, detained the same day, wasn’t a soldier but a senior cybersecurity specialist.

The arrests opened another front in America’s new Cold War, with China. It is a struggle in which Huawei figures prominently, as Washington wages a global campaign to dissuade allies from using the company’s equipment in the next generation of mobile-phone technology, known as 5G. The Trump administration in May effectively banned the use of Huawei gear in U.S. telecom networks and restricted the company’s purchases of American technology. Washington says the company is an arm of the Chinese government, and U.S. officials fear Huawei’s 5G technology could be exploited for espionage and sabotaging a country’s critical infrastructure. Huawei denies this.

At the G20 summit in Japan last week, Trump said U.S. companies would be allowed to sell some components to Huawei. But he didn’t reverse the de facto ban on using Huawei gear in U.S. networks. Since announcing the arrests, Polish prosecutors have said little about the case; it is mostly classified. But in lengthy responses from jail to questions from Reuters, the Chinese businessman at the center of the case, Wang Weijing, said he was innocent. “I am wrongfully accused for doing things I have never done and am being kept away from my family,” he said. “Not to mention that finding an alleged spy in Huawei is a perfect excuse to kick Huawei out of Poland and elsewhere.”

Wang’s responses, delivered by his lawyer, Bartlomiej Jankowski, provide new details about the case and about his relationship with the other defendant, Piotr Durbajlo. Among them: Wang says that Durbajlo was probably his best Polish friend; the two men spent time in China together on three occasions, including during a 2013 visit by Polish government officials to Huawei’s headquarters in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen and a 10-day vacation last summer; and Huawei, which fired Wang after his arrest, has nevertheless provided him some support.

Reuters has also learned that Poland’s security services are interested in Durbajlo’s travel to China. And they are looking into his work on a project at a Warsaw military university that involved creating a monitoring system to guard against intruders accessing classified information sent through fiber optic communication networks.

The Huawei battle reflects a fundamental geostrategic shift in Washington. For decades, the U.S. foreign policy establishment assumed Beijing would evolve into a cooperative partner in the rules-based, American-led international order that did so much to foster China’s boom. That hope has evaporated. Now, the United States sees China as an adversary determined to challenge American leadership in technology and innovation. President Donald Trump has launched a trade war against Beijing and is boosting defense spending. Huawei is cast as a Chinese standard-bearer in that struggle.

But this counter-strategy is creating new tensions in the Western alliance. Many U.S. allies face a hard choice: block Huawei, remain in America’s good graces and alienate China; or opt to use Huawei’s cheaper equipment in their 5G networks and risk Washington’s wrath. Government officials in Poland, which relies on U.S. security backing in the face of an emboldened Russia, have told Reuters that Wang’s arrest was a further reason to rethink the integral role Huawei plays in Poland’s telecom networks. Poland has yet to decide whether to impose restrictions on Huawei.

“The danger of using equipment from Chinese companies like Huawei is very real, as recent events in Poland prove,” U.S. Ambassador to Poland Georgette Mosbacher told Reuters, pointing to “the need for all our European allies to take this threat seriously” in building telecom networks. Huawei declined to answer questions for this story. “As the Poland case remains subject to a legal case, we are unable to provide any comment at this time,” a company spokesman said.

Given his resume, Wang Weijing says he can understand why Polish authorities might believe he is a spy for China. Besides the fact he speaks Polish and worked at Huawei, he had a four-and-a-half-year stint at the Chinese consulate in the port city of Gdansk and cultivated relations with Polish officials during his time in the country.

“I guess I could be considered as a potentially good candidate to become a spy,” the 37-year-old Chinese national told Reuters from inside Warszawa-Bialoleka prison and detention center. But Wang flatly denies spying for Beijing: “No one ever offered me such a job,” he told Reuters. “I have never spied for the Chinese government. I have never done anything to the detriment of Poland. That would be absurd,” he also said. “Poland is my second home.”

Wang’s lawyer Jankowski, who declined to discuss any of the evidence in the case, believes his client has become collateral damage in America’s war on Huawei. He’s concerned, he says, that his client might remain in jail for at least two years before he’s either freed or indicted. Under Polish law, a suspect can be held in detention for years while authorities continue to investigate.

Whatever Wang’s ultimate fate, his case is now embroiled in America’s war on Huawei. The United States has praised Poland for the arrests of Wang and Durbajlo. During a visit to Warsaw in February, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said Washington “welcomes Poland’s partnership as we work to protect the telecommunications sector from China.” The detention of “a Huawei executive and a Polish national accused of cooperating with him,” Pence added, “demonstrate your government’s commitment to ensure our telecommunications sector is not compromised in a way that threatens our national security.”

China’s Foreign Ministry directed Reuters to comments it made on the case in January. “We noted that both the relevant Polish side and Huawei have said in their statements that the case of Wang Weijing is entirely an individual one,” a spokeswoman said at the time. Attempts to “crack down” on Chinese technology companies, she added, were being driven by baseless charges. “Huawei’s reputation for security has been praised by its partners for many years,” she said.

According to Huawei, the company has more than 900 employees in Poland and so far has invested more than $1.3 billion in the country. Poland’s biggest mobile operator, Play Communications SA, says it has built the vast majority of its network’s base stations using Huawei equipment.

Days after Polish security personnel detained Wang on Jan. 8, Huawei fired him, stating that the incident had brought the company “into disrepute” and that Wang’s “alleged actions have no relation to the company.” Yet Wang told Reuters that company employees have been helping his wife on a “daily basis” and that Huawei has provided his lawyer with some documents related to his work “to assist the investigation.” He didn’t elaborate. He also said he hopes the company will help pay his legal expenses.

A lawyer for Durbajlo said he didn’t want his client to comment for this story. “We filed a request to overturn the arrest and it was not accepted,” the lawyer said. Wang’s wife declined through a friend to be interviewed. This article is based on interviews with more than 20 people who knew either Wang or Durbajlo or have knowledge of the case. They include former colleagues and friends, business associates, government officials and former intelligence agents. The interviews showed that both had extensive contacts in Poland’s government and telecom industry, had known each other for years and had grown very close.

Polish President Andrzej Duda told Reuters that the allegations were not “empty,” that “documentation exists” and that the arrests of the two men on espionage charges mean “there is evidence that such activities may have been carried out.” “So as far as I understand, in this respect, from the point of view of the [Polish security] services and prosecutor’s office, the case is unequivocal,” said Duda, who spoke in an interview last month.

Polish dictionaries

Wang’s arrest was a stunning twist in a journey to Poland that began nearly two decades ago. Wang, who also goes by the Polish first name Stanislaw, said he grew up in a village that is now part of the northern Chinese city of Shijiazhuang. He became one of the first students in his village to be accepted at a university, after scoring well on an exam, he said. That earned him the chance to study Polish at the prestigious Beijing Foreign Studies University.

“Frankly speaking, I really had very poor knowledge about Poland at that time,” Wang said. “I discussed it with my parents and we decided that studying Polish at the best university of foreign languages in China would be a good investment in my future.” At university, Wang was diligent and often visited the library, said a friend who has known him for years. The school had seven Polish dictionaries for students, of which four could be borrowed. “You would see his name in all four dictionaries,” the friend said.

Wang’s hard work paid off. He was one of four students at the university who won a scholarship to go to Poland to study the language in the central city of Lodz, he said. He arrived in the fall of 2001 and studied there for about 10 months. “That was the very beginning of my contact with Poland,” he said. He returned to China and later held jobs distributing wine and trading amber jewelry, he said. In 2006, he learned that China’s consulate in the northern Polish port city of Gdansk was seeking a Polish-Chinese translator. He passed a Polish language exam and was hired.

Wang said he worked at the consulate for four-and-a-half years and was one of only three Chinese employees, and the only one who spoke Polish. His official title, he said, was cultural attaché. But he handled protocol, administrative and visa issues, as well as some menial tasks. “I used to remove snow and wash cars,” he said. He said he also frequently assisted the consulate’s top diplomat. “I travelled across northern Poland on numerous occasions and participated in numerous meetings with local authorities, together with the Consul General,” he said.

The Chinese consulate didn’t respond to requests for comment. Wang left the consulate in January 2011 and returned to China, seeking new challenges. About two months later, Huawei contacted him about a public relations job with the company in Poland. “I guess they got my contact via my colleagues” - either from the Beijing university he attended or the Chinese embassy, he said. Wang landed the job and returned to Poland in June 2011. At Huawei, Wang was responsible for handling public affairs as the company worked to expand beyond selling equipment to telecom operators and enter new markets for its technology.

His job, he said, included networking with Polish government officials, institutions and industry groups, as well as “maintaining good working relationships with China-related institutions.” He said he also kept in regular contact with the Chinese embassy. By 2017, Wang had changed jobs to become a salesman in Huawei’s Enterprise Business Group, where he worked targeting Poland’s public sector. He said he was mainly seeking sales opportunities in government ministries and institutions, and state-owned companies. They included the railways and a national research institute tasked with internet security and responding to cybersecurity threats.

Wang said he had extensive contacts in the Polish government and telecommunications industry. But he said he was only doing his job. “Not knowing the key people on the market would be an act of negligence,” he said. People who interacted with Wang said he was an assiduous networker. He was a regular at events hosted by the Chinese Embassy in Warsaw, according to a Chinese business executive. Several people recounted receiving text greetings, or little presents of Chinese tea or calendars from him during Chinese and Polish holidays. Wang’s command of Polish set him apart from his Chinese colleagues, said a former Polish government official.

Wang told Reuters he wasn’t directly involved in Huawei’s 5G business. But he said he understands why Huawei quickly fired him. “When an employee is criminally accused as ‘a spy,’ what do you think the company could do?” he said. “The company did what it had to do and I understand that.”

Russia fears

While Polish officials say they are open to increasing trade ties with China, President Duda said he is opposed to investment by Beijing in strategic infrastructure, including seaports and airports. Poland-China relations have also cooled as Warsaw has sought closer ties with Washington in the face of what the Poles see as a growing threat from Russia, analysts say.

In March last year, Poland signed a $4.75 billion deal with Washington to purchase the Patriot missile defense system - the biggest arms procurement deal in Polish history. Currently, there are several thousand American soldiers stationed in Poland on a rotational basis. Last month, President Donald Trump pledged to deploy an additional 1,000 U.S. troops to the country.

China’s Foreign Ministry told Reuters that Beijing “attaches importance to developing relations with Poland and is willing to cooperate with Poland based on mutual respect and trust.”

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