ZTE hires ex-senator Lieberman in battle to return to US market

17 December 2018 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

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ZTE has started its fight to win access to the US market by hiring a former vice-presidential candidate and ex-senator as a consultant.

Joe Lieberman, who fought for tougher cybersecurity laws when he was in the US Senate, will spend six months preparing a report for the Chinese company on its future options.

“I don’t expect at any point, certainly in this phase, to be giving ZTE’s point of view,” he told the US online publication Politico. “I’m really supposed to be listening and asking questions.”

ZTE told Politico that it had hired Lieberman to carry out a “fact-finding mission as part of its comprehensive effort to better understand and address any national security concerns of its customers, congressional and executive branch officials in the US, and governments across the globe”.

This means ZTE’s action appears to be wider and more political than that so far contemplated by Huawei – which has allocated a reported £2 billion to improve its software engineering, in order to overcome doubts expressed by UK security authorities earlier in 2018.

Huawei’s plans, however, were overshadowed two weeks ago by Canada’s arrest of its CFO, Meng Wanzhou, at the request of US authorities enquiring into its plans to export to Iran via an intermediary. In particular, the US is alleging that Huawei owned the Hong Kong-based intermediary, Skycom, but pretended that it was an independent company in negotiations with HSBC – something the US is saying was fraudulent.

Meng’s lawyer, David Martin, said the suggestion was “preposterous”. Meng is on bail in Vancouver and the US has until the end of January to put its case for extradition.

At ZTE, Lieberman told Politico that his task is to see what can be done to “raise the level of trust in ZTE”. He will not lobby for the company: “They’ve got plenty of lobbyists and they don’t need me to do that, and I didn’t particularly want to do that.”

Lieberman was a Democratic party senator – later an independent – for Connecticut. He was Al Gore’s running mate in the 2000 presidential election, but the pair were defeated by George W Bush and Dick Cheney, even though they got 543,895 more votes.

The US fined ZTE $1.4 billion earlier this year after uncovering a 2011 plan to export products to Iran that illegally contained US hardware and software. The company narrowly survived but is still banned from major US telcos and from government contracts.

Politico calls Lieberman “a deeply connected Washington insider” in its interview with him.

He told the publication: “There are obviously still concerns about the safety of [ZTE’s] products or the extent to which their products could be used to compromise American security in any way or even individual security.” He said ZTE has “decided to really try to get ahead of those concerns and be in a position to answer them”.

He plans to talk to members of Congress who have spoken against ZTE or who lead relevant committees and to government officials. According to the Politico interview, he will report back “in roughly six months”.