What's wrong with Chinese mobile phones?
At first glance, Chinese mobile telephones appear to be quite the bargain. Unavailable in the West, they are ubiquitous throughout South and East Asia and extremely cheap. They also have very high performance specifications for the most part, operating using the Android operating system to the specifications of some of the highest Western manufactured mobile phones, including high processing speeds, clear screens, large memories and multiple high quality cameras. Moreover their prices are extremely reasonable. Depending upon the country where one buys the predominant brands, Vivo, Xiaomi and Oppo, the prices can vary between 80 and 150 Euros. With a lot of western branded smartphones with similar specifications selling at between 500 and 1,200 Euros, Chinese mobile phones appear prima facie an extremely good buy indeed. The only challenge facing the western consumer is where to buy one from. Some countries outside the EU, in the Western Balkans region, sell them, but they may be taxed. Otherwise one can pick up a cheap Chinese mobile phone on one's next intercontinental vacation.
Chinese mobile phones, by reason of their extremely modest pricing, are particularly attractive for those of us who have a habit of misplacing or losing mobile phones. The number of young people who now routinely carry a 1,000 Euro+ mini-computer hanging out of the back pocket of their trousers or in a small frail bag while having a night out in a bar or nightclub defies description. These devices, if stolen, can be sold on a black market, reprogrammed and resold. Therefore there is a strong incentive to steal these devices and indeed many of them are stolen and never recovered. Cheap Chinese mobile phones are a solution to this problem, because there is less incentive to steal a lower-value device and if it is stolen or misplaced then a replacement is entirely affordable. It is not as grave an error as having one's favourite Swiss watch stolen.
However there is a perceived problem with mobile phones. In the words of First Post, a reputable Indian news portal (India is the world's second largest market for Chinese mobile phones, after China itself), from August 2022:
Several government agencies from all over the world fear that not just apps, but the devices themselves originating from China can potentially spy on their citizenry, and are a major concern for domestic security and sovereignty.
It is unquestionably this concern that has led to a de facto ban, and sometimes even a de jure ban, upon the sale of Chinese mobile telephone technology. We know that all of Japan, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Taiwan (Republic of China), France and Germany have some sorts of legal bans or restrictions in place. One explanation of this might be protectionism: western markets are seeking to protect market shares and sales revenues for more expensive western mobile telephones (although a number of components of these more expensive mobile telephones are actually made in China, or in other countries with lower labour costs). Is there really something behind the various legal bans and restrictions on Chinese mobile telephone technology found in the West? We regret to inform the reader that in our experience and understanding, the answer is almost certainly yes, and that the western government agencies responsible for initiating these bans have indeed discovered something amiss with Chinese mobile telephone technology.
We should begin by stating the obvious. Virtually every government with a sophisticated Signals intelligence capacity has the capacity, should they so desire, to monitor the use of mobile telephones by their population and by people more generally in their jurisdiction. Both the hardware and software have backdoors unknown (mostly) to the general public but that allow governments access in specific cases, typically for the purposes of gathering information relevant to security and intelligence or for the purposes of detecting and preventing serious crime. This sort of governmental access is, after some historical scandals and complaints of abuse of authority, now for the most part accepted by the general public in liberal democracies as something as normal as a search warrant for a private property that it is suspected is being used for serious criminal purposes. Surveillance does not necessarily entail that the person under surveillance is suspected of wrongdoing; it may be for that person's protection. But all these activities happen, so one hopes, within a legal and procedural framework and pursuant to principles of proportionality. Moreover there are legal limitations upon the use to which evidence so collected can be put. The greater majority of the evidence collected by security and intelligence services in liberal democracies is not admissible in court, for example.
The problem that arises in the People's Republic of China is that mobile telephone technology appears to be used to engage in en masse surveillance of entire populations on a routine basis. It is not just individuals that are targeted for surveillance for a legitimate reason; rather the entire population is being constantly subject to surveillance, to study whether their instant messages, emails or other communications contain key words or patterns of key words that my indicate subversive behaviour or other conduct contrary to the national interest. Also the government may keep tabs on where its citizens are at all times, using their mobile telephones. This author, the owner of two Chinese mobile telephones, was rather taken aback to discover that every time the mobile telephone re-registers itself with another mobile telephone mast it tries to send a secret SMS to the telephone mast, presumably informing the mobile telephone company where the telephone is now so that the person holding the mobile telephone can be permanently followed.
The "solution" to this problem, that the ingenious mobile telephone company (which shall not be named) had devised, was to sell a mobile telephone SIM card package that could not send SMS messages - it could receive them, and telephone calls and data worked normally, but it could not send SMS messages. (Incidentally, the country in which this took place did involve a Chinese mobile phone but was not the People's Republic of China.) The net result was that the telephone would keep pinging relentlessly, trying to send SMS messages to update the mobile phone mast system on the location of the owner; but failing and producing a torrent of error messages. After some fiddling around with the settings, this author managed to disable this intensely irritating feature.
When we add to this strict laws requiring the purchaser of a SIM card to provide a copy of their official identity - and, in some countries, a contemporary photograph (which includes a retinal scan because modern mobile phone cameras are quite adequate for this purpose) - and even, in some countries, copies of their fingerprints and thumbprints pressed onto the screen of the vendor's mobile phone, one begins to understand the colossal quantities of personal information and data that mobile telephone companies, sanctioned and regulated by the state and required to hand over this sort of personal information to the government authorities whenever they may be so required, start to acquire about the entire population. In most countries of the world there are now more mobile telephones than people. Hence mobile phones have become a method, in some countries, by which government can keep tabs upon an entire population. In the western mindset, this is a gross infringement of civil liberties.
When one adds into this the fact that a number of Apps, and the operating systems, of Chinese mobile telephones have been partially rewritten to facilitate the collection of personal data, to include everything from associated email addresses, passwords, banking and payment application details, websites visited, applications installed on the phone, relationships and sexual preferences (this author has even had bespoke pornography appear on his Chinese mobile telephone, apparently conforming to his sexual tastes in the mind of a giant Chinese computer somewhere), social class and levels of education, video games preferences, and a panoply of other information that might properly be classed as sensitive personal information, the level of information contained on Chinese mobile phones starts and as a matter of principle capable of being supplied to the government starts really to become quite alarming. Then when this technology becomes supplied abroad, the danger is that the Chinese government, and/or other governments with access to the various backdoors and other software loopholes the Chinese government authorities have ensured are installed in Chinese mobile telephones and their associated applications, can start collecting information about foreign citizens in foreign countries, or Chinese citizens in foreign countries, or whatever the interest of the day may be. This is why the First Post article makes reference to Chinese mobile telephone technology being a potential danger to sovereignty and to the national security interests of foreign countries.
Without doubt some Chinese-sourced mobile telephone applications are quite ingeniously programmed. This author's recent favourite is a chat application called "Line", which has the wonderfully eccentric quality of turning the words one types into it into a series of weird and wonderful colourful Emojis so that if one wants, one's entire message can be written in eccentric Emojis. In one sense this is quite a subversive quality, designed to defeat the censors and those undertaking government surveillance; because government surveillance programmes tend to look for specific words whereas Line App transforms those words into a series of coloured icons. Nevertheless there seems to be some serious concern about the security of Line App in the West, because in at least some European countries there is an effective block on downloading it.
There may also be a hidden Western concern that Chinese mobile telephones are written with a view to compromising the security architecture of supposedly secure Western instant messaging products. This author has found it impossible to download the common Western instant messaging service WhatsApp onto Chinese mobile telephones, although according to both the WhatsApp official website information and that of the Chinese mobile telephone manufacturers it should in theory be possible to do it. If one attempts to do so, then the WhatsApp software works for just a few minutes and then returns with an error message disabling the account for an incoherent reason. There may be a hidden war between WhatsApp and the Chinese government underway; WhatsApp has been banned in the People's Republic of China, seemingly because it is too secure for the Chinese security authorities to obtain easy access to for surveillance purposes. In a sort of revenge ritual, WhatsApp has therefore issued an unofficial ban upon the installation of WhatsApp onto Chinese mobile telephones, so as to deter people from using those phones because they are locked out of the world's leading source of instant messaging.
Nevertheless WhatsApp is unlikely to prevail in this secret battle, for the simple reason that Chinese mobile telephones are rugged, well-built, generally well-programmed, extremely cheap and rather powerful. Provided that you do not mind being placed under surveillance by the Chinese government (or that you limit what you install on your mobile telephone to things that you do not mind them surveilling you over), Chinese mobile telephones are rather good. They are so extremely reasonably priced that if nothing else they will have a dramatic effect upon market competition and the fact that they have become ubiquitous across South and East Asia should in time depress the often outrageously inflated prices of Apple, Samsung and other mobile telephone products. This is sorely overdue, if the benefits of mobile telephony and smart phones are to be spread across the globe to the balance of people who do not yet have access to a decent and reliable mobile telephone.
In conclusion, this author will continue to use his Chinese mobile telephones, which are well-made, resistant to damage and exceptional for rugged travel, but with a series of provisos.
Do not voluntarily give to the mobile telephone anything more than a minimum of your personal information.
Do not use banking applications from a Chinese mobile telephone, and do not use applications that transfer money. You are providing information about your spending habits and finances potentially to the Chinese or other governments, and you may not want to do that.
Do not use these mobile telephones for substantially professional purposes. Do not keep professional contacts' details stored in those mobile phones, unless you want easily to provide information about your professional activities to government.
Do not associate your primary email addresses with those telephones.
Do not use those telephones to make statements that might indicate wantonly criminal behaviour, subversive activities, or other actions against the national interests of the country you are present in. (You should probably not be doing such things using any mobile telephone, in all honesty.)
If you want to keep things like social media accounts or websites anonymous (this article series is intentionally kept anonymous), then do not install software on your Chinese mobile telephone that allows you to edit data you imagine to be anonymous: as it may suddenly cease to be anonymous vis-à-vis the government of the country you are present in.
Do not install excessive numbers of applications, such as step counters, different sorts of mapping services, or applications that reflect your lifestyle preferences, onto such phones as you may be assisting the governmental authorities of the country in which you are present in creating a profile of you.
The dangers of using a Chinese mobile telephone can be overstated. We live in an information age, in which governments of all hues are increasingly concerned with collecting information about their citizenry for the simple reason that collecting such information is now technologically possible whereas previously it was not. The vast majority of this information collection is harmless, and it befits us not to be overly paranoid. It is just a feature of contemporary living, that governments and private corporations alike seek to collect information about us, for whatever purposes; and we should simply get used to it because there is no other choice, unless we stop using mobile telephones altogether (and this author has tried it; it is a wonderful experience after the first couple of days of withdrawal symptoms). The real region of risk arises where political opposition activities in fragile democracies may be persecuted as a result of governmental surveillance of their mobile phone activities. That is the area in which eternal vigilance is legitimately prescribed.