US and China must step off ‘path to disaster’, warns Jeffrey Sachs after storm of criticism over Huawei defence
- Economist defends comments on tech giant saying the US is targeting it as part of a ‘reckless’ attempt to contain its rival
- Sachs faced firestorm of criticism on Twitter and says he quit social media network because it was ‘too time-consuming and distracting’
Renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs has said diplomacy is needed between the US and China to prevent “utter disaster” as he defended his controversial criticism of Washington’s targeting of Chinese telecoms giant Huawei Technologies.
The Columbia University professor faced a firestorm of criticism on social media after he accused the US of hypocrisy for its targeting of Huawei senior executive Sabrina Meng Wanzhou, who was arrested by the Canadian authorities last month at the behest of the US.
Sachs told the South China Morning Post he had been taking a break from the social media site since deleting his Twitter account late last month. “I found Twitter to be time-consuming and distracting,” he said.
Meng was arrested on suspicion of violating US sanctions against Iran, a move Sachs called “reckless” in a syndicated article he published on December 11 with the headline “The War on Huawei”.
He wrote that, by contrast, no major executives from American financial institutions had been arrested even though their companies had been fined for violating their country’s own sanctions on Iran or other nations.
“The US attacks on Huawei, in my view, are not about Huawei’s actions but about technological competition,” Sachs said on Tuesday.
“I don’t think we should take claims against Huawei by the US at face value.”
“We need diplomacy to stop an IT arms race,” he said. “Right now we are on the path to disastrous cyberwarfare.
“This is reckless and should not be left to the hardliners on both sides. We need global rules, globally supervised, just as in the areas of other armaments.”
He added that the US targeting of Chinese firms should be seen against the background of the Trump administration’s attempt to assert American “exceptionalism” and to fight the perceived challenge of China and Russia to US power.
“It is a very dangerous and utterly false idea that China is ‘attempting to erode American security and prosperity,’” he said, referring to the US national security doctrine issued by the White House a year ago.
Sachs warned that conflicts like the continuing trade war and the targeting of Chinese IT firms “recall an early era of great power confrontation that eventually led to utter disaster”.
“China is not America’s enemy, unless such zero-sum thinking by the [US government] drives China in that direction … China is not a malevolent actor to be ‘contained’ by the US.
“China is a great and rightly proud civilisation that aims for the prosperity of its people. China and the US have every reason to cooperate. It would be insane and utterly self-destructive to do otherwise,” he said.
Sachs’s defence of Huawei in his December article led to a wave of accusations on social media, with some Twitter users speculating that he had taken money from the technology company or other Chinese entities.
Critics raised concerns over Sachs’s frequent engagement with Chinese companies such as Huawei. One month before his article defending the tech giant, Sachs wrote a foreword to a Huawei company publication outlining the company’s recommendations to global governments on digital technology policy.
Sachs defended himself against the accusations, saying: “I have no financial, representational, or contractual relationship with Huawei.
“I work without any compensation with many of the major telecom companies (including Huawei’s competitors) in my encouragement to all of them to use IT to promote the Sustainable Development Goals,” he said, referring to his advocacy for a UN humanitarian project covering poverty, hunger, health care and education.
“This is never for pay. It is part of my [sustainable development goals] advocacy.”
Sachs also responded to calls from critics for a clearer position on human rights in China, in particular the mass incarceration of mainly Uygur Muslims in what the authorities call “vocational retraining facilities” in the western region of Xinjiang.
“I think that Xinjiang raises many serious concerns about human rights,” he said, adding that he concurred with statements made by the UN in September, which called reports on the facilities “deeply disturbing” and requested more access to monitors.
In a now-deleted tweet Sachs told critics that he would research the topic, but that he was wary of US government “propaganda” distorting the issue.
“We live in a period where human rights are abused with impunity by the United States, its allies, and many other countries as well, including China,” Sachs said.
“Going forward, interstate cooperation at the UN and a firm commitment by all countries to UN processes and principles, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, are key to addressing and eliminating human rights abuses.”