Discussing Huawei in a Chinese coffee shop

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From left: Joe Kelly, Public Affairs and Communications Dept., Huawei; Josh Chin, the Wall Street Journal; Elliott Zaagman, TechNode contributor; Ian Lahiffe, moderator. (Image credit: Effy Zhang)

In mid-March, I participated on a panel discussion on the future of Huawei at the annual Bookworm Literary Festival in Beijing.

With me on the panel were Huawei’s Global VP of Public Affairs Joe Kelly and the Wall Street Journal’s Josh Chin. The talk was moderated by Irishman Ian Lahiffe, a China hand who works in agtech.

While it was entertaining for the audience, we were largely unable to make progress in answering the central question of the panel, that being: “Which Way for Huawei?”

Ever since the news of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou’s arrest and the US government’s aggressive attempts to go after the firm on a number of fronts, discussing and writing about Huawei has been a bit awkward for me.

I’m not a US national security or cybersecurity expert. I am also not someone actively trying to take sides in what is looking increasingly like—as the Eurasia Group has coined it—a “US-China tech cold war.” I have no opinion or insight as to whether the myriad accusations from the US government towards Huawei are true or not.

When I began writing about Huawei in 2017, my interest in the company had very little to do with politics. Instead, it had to do with Huawei’s people, its culture, and the worldview that seemed to guide it. I had noticed a fairly common disconnect between how positively the company was thought of within China, and its reputation abroad for poor human resources practices, clueless public relations, and shaky legal compliance.

One of the first areas I looked was the employer-review platform Glassdoor, where Huawei had thousands of reviews. While the company’s overall score was generally average or only slightly below (between 3.0 and 3.5 stars out of 5 stars), filtering the results for specific countries displayed a much different picture. For more developed nations in particular, Huawei’s reviews from its employees ranged from mediocre to abysmal.

When sifting through the reviews from foreign countries, some very clear patterns began to emerge. While many mentioned that attractive compensation packages made the company appealing to join, the praise was often overshadowed by complaints which tended to fall along similar lines: A number of them complained of a two-tier system for staff, in which power was held almost exclusively in the hands of Chinese nationals. Many of these Chinese people, according to reviewers, lacked knowledge of or respect for local cultures or laws. Other reviews mentioned violations by Chinese management of local labor laws, racial and gender discrimination, and lack of transparency.

When speaking with over a dozen current and former Huawei employees in preparation for an article, I noticed similar themes. While Huawei’s pay, intensity, and energy was praised, the two-tier system for staff, poor localization practices, and disregard for local laws—particularly employment laws—were often mentioned.

A number of Chinese nationals sent to overseas Huawei offices spoke of a process in which issues would be discussed and decided upon among Chinese expatriate staff, and then a plan would be drafted for what to say to the local staff. “Often the message we would give the local staff was very different from the reality of the situation,” said one.

Another industry expert said bluntly about Huawei, “I cannot think of another company in the world that has such a global presence, but pays so little attention to localization and integration.”

Disregard for the public

Since first writing about Huawei’s culture and overseas operations, I have been regularly contacted by current or former (mostly non-Chinese) Huawei employees who would share their stories of similar complaints.

To be clear, I’m sure that those who chose to speak with me are unlikely to be Huawei’s happiest employees. However, when I discussed such issues with Huawei staff more supportive of the company’s practices, the feedback I received was not denial of the allegations, but more often than not defending such behavior as necessary in order to sustain the company’s success.

As one American entrepreneur who had frequently worked with Huawei teams on cross-cultural training explained to me: “Huawei has preferred to take an approach like a steamroller to the culture issue … They don’t really believe in adjusting to overseas cultures, but just overwhelming projects with resources until they get it done,” he said. “To Huawei, cultural issues are distractions from urgent short-term goals, rather than a long-term challenge to handle.”

In China, localization and integration are famously demanded of foreign companies and individuals who would like to do business there—often rightfully so. It is then therefore troubling to see China’s most globally expansive firms actively disregard those principles when the shoe is on the other foot.

This apparent disregard for the public of the overseas markets in which they operate has been seen in their PR practices in relating to overseas media, from vaguely threatening advertising campaigns and (until recently) notoriously media-shy senior executives, to a 2015 tour of their Shanghai campus in which media members reportedly had their phones and cameras confiscated. According to Angus Grigg of the Australian Financial Review, when reporters on the tour asked about the company’s connections with the Chinese government, they were told that they could not mention the Huawei tour in their articles and that the group of roughly 30 members of the media should leave immediately.

It also seems as though it may be a policy of Huawei’s to say different things to domestic audiences and international audiences, even if they seem contradictory.

As the company’s former US PR chief William Plummer wrote in his book Huidu: Inside Huawei, founder Ren Zhengfei advised Huawei executives in 2014: “In China, state that Huawei strongly supports the Communist Party of China. Outside China, stress that Huawei always follows key international trends.”

If Plummer’s recollection is correct, what he is describing sounds dishonest, or at least disingenuous.

At the Bookworm panel on which I participated, Huawei’s Joe Kelly understandably defended the tendency of his company’s top leaders to avoid communicating with the overseas public because Ren simply did not see it as a top priority or responsibility of his.

In my eyes, I view this to be indicative of disrespect and disregard for the values and interests of the billions of people in the 170 countries where Huawei does business.

Kelly mentioned that “Huawei deals with the Chinese government in the same way that it deals with the German government, the British government, or any other government.” While such a statement may be true in many logistical and administrative respects, such as with permits, licenses, and even in many cases, bidding for contracts, it does not address the fact that single-party states, by their very nature, have a different dynamic between businesses and the party-state than elsewhere.

Even since their more recent PR charm offensive, the company’s statements, while perhaps technically true, fail to authentically build trust.

Statements from Huawei’s leaders that they would reject Chinese government requests for data seem absurd, not simply because they are claiming to be willing to break Chinese law, but also because there are a multitude of ways in which governments can access data without even speaking to executives.

Who is Huawei?

In recent interviews, Huawei executives have spoken about the need for the company to honestly communicate “who they are” to the world.

I think “who Huawei is,” and what the world does or doesn’t know about that, is exactly the core problem here.

As Huawei has strong and growing footholds in future-oriented fields of technology such as 5G, IoT, and smart cities, they and other major tech firms have an increasing say in determining the future of how human societies function. We have already seen, with Facebook and Google, the extent to which those who provide our technologies can impact our lives, for both better and worse. But we also have a fairly clear picture about the cultures that they are built upon and the financial and ideological interests which motivate them. We know fairly well who they are and what they stand for, and we either trust them or don’t trust them because of it.

Both Facebook and Google seem to be acutely aware of the growing pressures to either prove themselves worthy of public trust, or to face existential challenges in the future.

That is less clear with Huawei.

Huawei has long asked the world to rely on them. But increasingly, they are asking the world to trust them. And those are two different things. Whether or not someone is reliable is based on the consistency of their behavior. But trust is about feeling confident that you can understand someone’s heart, someone’s reason for existing, someone’s core values and principles. To have trust for someone or something comes from whether or not you genuinely feel that they believe what you believe, or at the very least respect and understand what you hold most dear.

It seems as though establishing trust with the overseas public has not been a priority in recent years for Huawei. As its importance becomes more urgent, the question is if—or how—Huawei can effectively do this.

Right now, they seem more interested in fighting with the US government than honestly trying to win the overseas public’s trust.