A China Telecom presenter demonstrates a new "quantum" cellphone. Image: Global Times

Quantum is the latest buzzword in China Telecom’s new commercials now being aired nationwide.

The ad blitz comes after China’s top leadership pivoted the nation’s technology self-sufficiency drive to seizing so-called “quantum supremacy” and developing related devices that can solve problems that no classical computer can in any feasible amount of time.

It is safe to suggest, however, that even national leaders are still on a learning curve to grasp the basics of quantum technology.

Xinhua reported in October that President Xi Jinping convened a Politburo meeting and invited a vice-president of the Tsinghua University to draw out the principles and potential of quantum physics and put forth policy recommendations.

Still, Xi said China must get ahead of the curve to develop quantum computers, sensors, cryptography and communications networks. China Telecom is now among the first-movers to heed Beijing’s quantum call. 

At its annual services and products expo in November in Guangzhou, the state-owned carrier unveiled two handsets developed with Huawei and ZTE, claiming that calls from and to these devices as well as the data flowing through them would be unhackable. 

Huawei’s new “quantum phone,” launched with China Telecom, is based on its Mate 40 smartphone. Image: Twitter
A “quantum phone” showcased at a China Telecom expo in November looks not that different from other traditional models already available on the market. Photo: Handout

China Telecom Vice-President Zhang Zhiyong said the two “quantum smartphones,” based on Huawei and ZTE’s flagship models, would be pitched at high-end users such as celebrities, executives and government officials who would value super-fast performance and, more importantly, “foolproof” privacy and data protection.

Zhang said the quantum phones would hit the market by the end of the year. 

Yet the two models appear to be only modestly upgraded versions of Huawei’s Mate 40 and ZTE’s Axon 20 handsets, with a “quantum encryption chip” being the only new drawcard, according to a specification leaflet viewed by Asia Times. A user can switch between two modes – regular cellular service or an encrypted mode – when making a call.  

The phones have received mixed receptions from tech analysts in China, with Sina Tech calling China Telecom’s marketing of them as “quantum smartphones” misleading.

But a tech news account on Weibo, maintained by the China News Service, hailed them as the world’s first of their kind and that foreign leaders and dignitaries concerned about interception and eavesdropping should consider using the new devices.  

China Telecom will also launch “quantum SIM cards” to enable similar encryption protection on phones already on the market. But to enable such encrypted calls and messaging, the other end user will also need such a SIM card. 

China’s influential tech analysis and review website ZOL.com, which is based in Beijing’s Zhongguancun tech hub, said China Telecom needed to offer more information about its “quantum phones and SIM cards” to lure consumers.

But it said growing suspicion among some patriotic Chinese of US products and their privacy reliability may drive some buyers to embrace these new offerings. 

In November, China Telecom formed a joint venture with QuantumCTek, a listed company owned by the University of Science and Technology of China, to expand the quantum communications network linking Beijing and Shanghai.

This quantum system has been up and running since 2019 and will cover more eastern and central cities. 

China Telecom said its quantum communications solutions leverage the laws of quantum physics to protect data and that the company and its partners had built ultra-secure communications networks that could form the basis of a “quantum internet” for China. 

The Beijing-Shanghai quantum link is said to be the first in the world in pilot commercial use for select government agencies and state-owned enterprises in finance, energy and defense sectors to transmit sensitive, proprietary information and files. 

Xi Jinping says China must rocket past the United States and the European Union in the race to quantum supremacy. Image: AFP

China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation is said to be one of the earliest clients of the quantum link, which it uses to send drawings from its design institutes in Beijing and Shanghai to shipyards across the country, including the Dalian Shipyard where the first two Chinese aircraft carriers were built. 

Quantum laws allow particles, or quantum bits known as qubits, to transmit data along existing or purpose-built optical cables to take on a state of superposition. This means they can represent multiple combinations of 1s and 0s simultaneously.  

China Telecom touts in a video clip its “unhackable” quantum networks. It claims if a hacker tries to disrupt qubits of information in transit, their super-fragile quantum state would instantly change and thus alerts could be triggered.

“This means a hacker can’t tamper with the qubits without leaving behind a telltale sign of the activity and that only intended receivers can be included in quantum key distribution to retrieve data,” said the video. 

China Telecom said related encryption standards would be adopted by its overseas project teams in Belt and Road countries across Southeast Asia and Africa to help local clients and China-invested businesses enhance information security. 

Xinhua quoted Xi as saying during the Politburo learning session on quantum technology in October that China must rocket past the United States and the European Union in the race to quantum supremacy and formulate standards and protocols that the rest of the world must follow.