Huawei is the largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer and the second-largest manufacturer of smartphones in the world. While Huawei has been operating in Turkmenistan for over 20 years, little is known about its operations in the country. In this article we provide an overview of what Huawei is doing in Central Asia and Turkmenistan, some of the concerns associated with its technology and why Turkmenistan should be cautious about its increased reliance on Huawei.
Huawei is one of several Chinese companies that is active in Turkmenistan. There is no designated page or much coverage of Turkmenistan on the company website. Overall, Huawei is mainly active in the telecommunications, railway and energy sectors in Turkmenistan. One of Huawei’s major projects was providing mobile communication of all services at the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games held in Ashgabat in 2017.
Moreover, Huawei supplies smart city technologies including CCTV cameras and comprehensive solutions for data processing centers in Turkmenistan. It also provides software and technical equipment to the oil and gas industry.
In 2014 Huawei helped Altyn Asyr, a national telecommunication company in Turkmenistan, to expand its network coverage area in the Garagum Desert by installing new mobile base stations powered by solar panels, “Green site” technology. The goal was to provide stable mobile communication to remote areas of the desert and the Ashgabat-Dashoguz trans-Karakum highway. Moreover, Huawei has deployed a system of base stations (BTS) in all velayats of Turkmenistan to increase access to mobile communication, high-speed Internet and video communication.
As it was reported by Turkmenistan: Golden Age website, this has resulted in a tenfold increase in the number of Altyn Asyr subscribers within 4 years. More recently, in 2021 the Türkmenaragatnaşyk Agency signed a contract with Huawei for the supply of equipment, software and services for further development of the Altyn Asyr cellular network and for installation of Huawei equipment in the Akhal, Balkan, Dashoguz velayats and in the city of Ashgabat.
Furthermore, Huawei introduced an integrated communications system for the Turkmen railway through its intelligent railway solutions. In 2017 Huawei implemented a dispatch network with full wireless coverage over all railway sections and provided communications solution including telephone, video conferencing and power supply systems. In total, Huawei has helped Turkmenistan upgrade the communications systems for more than 1,200 kilometers of railway lines as well as increase the speed of the railway line from 60 km per hour to 120 km per hour.
In January of 2023 it was announced that the Transport and Communications Agency under the Cabinet of Ministers of Turkmenistan will sign a contract with Huawei. The company will provide the equipment, software and licenses, handle the transportation, installation, commissioning as well as provide technical support for the expansion of fixed telephone network across the country. As stated by the government media, this effort is part of the “Concept for the development of the digital economy in Turkmenistan in 2019-2025”.
The General Director of the Agency for Transport and Communications Mammethan Chakiyev shared that the Agency is building new digital telephone exchanges in velayats and Ashgabat city. This will enable provision of telephone services, high-speed Internet and IP-television systems through a single management system.
According to Chao Long, CEO of Huawei in Turkmenistan, the company’s work focus on three areas:
- Providing 4G mobile communications and plans to introduce 5G in the future;
- Long-distance communication and digital transmission of video, audio, or data;
- Providing internal infrastructure for companies and technology needed for connectivity between company branches.
There are ongoing discussions about introducing 5G technology and building a data center in Turkmenistan in the near future. As a Huawei representative in Turkmenistan shared, “the mission of the division of our company is to bring a new digital reality to every Turkmen citizen, to every home and every department”.
Major concerns with Huawei in Central Asia
Under its Belt and Road Initiative China implements the Silk Road Economic Belt and Digital Silk Road projects in Central Asia which focus on large-scale infrastructure projects, such as roads, bridges, and pipelines as well as digital infrastructure including 5G investments. The Central Asian governments have mainly entrusted the provision of core telecommunications and security management technology to Chinese tech companies such as Huawei and ZTE corporation which are the early-movers in the region. However, the increasing role of Huawei in Central Asia has also raised some serious concerns including:
There are fears that Huawei could commit cyber espionage (illicit access to confidential information) because the Chinese law requires Chinese organizations and citizens to “support, assist, and cooperate with state intelligence work”. This is why United States, Japan and Australia have blocked the use of Huawei hardware for 5G and the company had to scale down its business operations in Europe.
Technology driven authoritarianism
There are also concerns that Huawei, through its technology transfer, is exporting the Chinese style surveillance-led security management. To illustrate, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are running a small-scale pilot study of China’s controversial social credit system (assessing trustworthiness of individuals), which could strengthen their grip on society. The 5G technology that Huawei is installing in Central Asia will provide the necessary technology for enhanced digital security. Already in 2019 Huawei has tested 5G technology in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan.
Spread of surveillance technology
Huawei is also helping Central Asian countries implement “Safe City” project. Its Safe City products have facial and license-plate recognition, social media monitoring, and ability to identify, monitor and track people as well as goods and services. Huawei has already installed 2,000 cameras in Astana, 883 cameras in Tashkent, and 800 cameras in Dushanbe for monitoring traffic and watching over public spaces. The President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev has shared his intention for the Safe City initiative to cover the whole country by 2023.
However, the Safe City initiative is controversial. On the one hand, increased video monitoring technology can enhance the capabilities of law enforcement, help improve public safety, allow early warning, prevention and response to threats. For instance, the Safe City project in Dushanbe helped significantly increase abidance by traffic rules, drop violations by 20% and raise 116.6 million somoni ($12 million) through fines. On the other hand, the project raises privacy concerns and fears that this technology can be used for state surveillance. In Kazakhstan police has allegedly used surveillance technology to determine locations and leaders of potential protests to prevent them before they happen. In Tajikistan Huawei has installed cameras with facial recognition capabilities at airports, railway stations, shopping centers, bazaars, parks and even in mosques, which allows the government to have control over Islamic teachings.
Increasing dependence on China and Chinese technology
Huawei is known for prioritizing building massive ecosystems. It accounts for over 90% of Tajikistan’s telecommunications infrastructure, enables the communication of more than half of Uzbekistan’s population and provides internet connection to 80% of the population in Kyrgyzstan. Moreover, Huawei is the main tech provider for Kyrgyzstan’s top telecommunication providers Sky Mobile and Alfa Telecom, accounting for 90% and 70% of their technology, respectively. Given that Central Asian states underinvest in their own technological capacity, this further exacerbates their dependency. Once Central Asian countries have widely installed Huawei’s equipment across different sectors and for diverse purposes, they may be “locked-in” by high replacement costs. And as these economies grow, Huawei’s market dominance and access to and control over large data in the region will only increase.
Huawei technology is also attracting because in many instances it is sponsored by Chinese loans. To illustrate, in 2008 Huawei modernized the Uzbek national telecommunications network for $21 million and in 2011 provided technology worth $18 million, both of which was financed using loans from the China Development Bank. This is also alarming because Central Asian countries’ debt to China is growing and it is over 20% of their GDP in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, 16.9% in Turkmenistan, 16% in Uzbekistan and 6.5% in Kazakhstan.
Disregarding data privacy
While Central Asian countries have dramatically improved their surveillance and digital networks within a short period of time, they are failing to introduce regulations and data protections to adequately protect both, their own data sovereignty from foreign interference as well as their citizens from potential government overreach. Given that the facial recognition software can be targeted, it raises an important question – who operates the cameras and who owns the servers where this footage will be stored. And the challenge in Central Asia is that such surveillance systems are installed without a public debate or oversight.
Proceed with caution: what Turkmenistan should do to address these concerns?
While in 2017 Turkmenistan has expanded regulations to better protect personal data from illegitimate uses, they remain limited due to poor enforcement. Given the increasing role of Huawei in the country and concerns related to its technology, the government and people in Turkmenistan need to be wary about how this technology is being used and could be misused.
Some of the major concerns facing Turkmenistan include:
- Limited public awareness of privacy and safety of persona data;
- Weak independent judicial system and a lack effective laws related to data privacy;
- Lack of transparency around the use of surveillance technology, data it collects and how its managed;
- Lack of accountability mechanisms including independent media and civil society to prevent and hold the law enforcement agencies accountable for potential misuse of personal data.
The urgent and important question for the Turkmen government to address is how it will ensure the privacy and security of Turkmen people’s data and that their personal data will not leave the physical or virtual borders of the country.