China Power | Diplomacy

A Firsthand Account of Huawei’s PR Drive

From infomercials to 5G licensing, Huawei is attempting to win Western hearts.

Bonnie Girard
A Firsthand Account of Huawei’s PR Drive

In this July 30, 2019, file photo a woman walks by a Huawei retail store in Beijing.

Credit: AP Photo/Andy Wong, File

In June of this year, I received an email that said, in part, “We’re working…to create a series of digital short films, and wanted to reach out…to see if [you] would be a willing contributor. We’re due to be filming in China in mid-July.”

Well, who wouldn’t jump at that?

I rang the firm at their London headquarters. They are the “commercial production division” of an iconic, trusted, British media conglomerate, I was told. They make films on behalf clients who pay for them to be produced.

And the client this time? None other than Huawei.

Huawei, never far from the front pages this year, jumped back to the top of the headlines earlier this month with its offer to license its 5G technology to American companies.

The offer is part of a larger public relations campaign that Huawei has embarked upon to burnish its image, revive its fortunes, and convince the United States and many of its allies that it is not building systems to spy on them.

Now that Huawei’s PR campaign was, against all logic, knocking on my door, I asked the producer how she got my name. “Oh, your name is all over the place on Huawei,” she said.

I asked, did she understand exactly what my take on Huawei has been? Did she know that I had written several articles that are critical of Huawei?

For example, I told her, I have written articles for The Diplomat that highlight Huawei’s dependence on Communist Party favor, the implications of founder Ren Zhengfei’s military and Communist Party background, and my personal experience in catching Huawei engineers red-handed in photographing the confidential configurations of my then-employer’s telecommunications equipment.

“That’s why they want you,” she said. “Your name is right at the top of their list.”

The takeaway from this incident is that Huawei is not only tracking its press mentions around the world, but that it is also prepared to respond to negative media by inviting those who write it to correct their ostensibly mistaken ideas.

The film company sent a list of questions that participants should be prepared to answer on camera.

On the one hand, the questions were matter-of-fact. Summarize China’s “open-door” policy. Discuss the growth of telephone lines in China. Why did Huawei turn to outside experts?

In the next breath, barely-disguised propaganda questions could be asked. What is it about founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei “that turned his tiny start-up into a technology colossus”? Why is Shenzhen, where Huawei is headquartered, seen as “China’s equivalent of Silicon Valley”?

Huawei’s approach raises many questions. On the one hand, there was not much of a quid pro quo. No fee for participating in the production was on offer, but an international air ticket to get to China for filming was. However, by inviting practitioners in the foreign media, especially those with a lengthy China background, to participate in the film, the risk for the foreign consultant or journalist was always going to be not what one said, but how what one said was edited.

And with the film being paid for by Huawei, no assurance of editorial accuracy could be assumed, even though the film company works for one of the world’s most respected media brands.

Huawei’s PR efforts haven’t stopped at making infomercials, however. Earlier this month, Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei sat down with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times.

And not only did Ren Zhengfei sit down with Friedman, Ren made an offer, which, on the face of it, was astonishing. The Huawei founder repeated the offer last week.

Ren is offering to license the full spectrum of Huawei’s 5G technology to a single U.S. company that wants to expand upon it. In essence, he is willing to let a U.S. company grow and thrive on Huawei technology, effectively creating an American competitor to himself.

The offer may be seen as an olive branch, perhaps even an olive tree, to the Trump administration.

It is also likely a concession made by a man who has been “persuaded” to make it. To put it another way, it is highly unlikely that Ren made this decision unilaterally.

It would be far more in keeping with the way that China works that Ren has been “inspired,” from the highest levels of the Chinese government, to make this offer to the United States. Huawei is a competitor within its industry, to be sure, but it is much more than that. It is a symbol of everything that the U.S. government and many of its allies distrust about China, its businesses, its politics, and its goals. It is one of the children on the trade war poster.

One can imagine that Xi Jinping himself may be somewhere behind Ren’s offer. Xi put himself on record defending Huawei. Ren owes him one. One at least.

Ren’s offer can also be seen as a mea culpa.

Admitting malfeasance or mistakes is not a strong Chinese cultural tradition. It is normally only done under extreme circumstances, and at that point it is a total loss of face, practically equal to a loss of life.

But Ren knows that Huawei has borrowed liberally from the technology of his competitors. He won’t come out and say it, but letting 5G go to an American competitor may be his way of admitting it, and attempting to amend it. This shouldn’t be confused with humility, or altruism. But as a political move, it’s savvy. As a personal move on Ren’s part, it’s smart.

But as a potential move on the part of the United States, from business, political, and technological perspectives all, it would be naïve to accept Ren’s offer. In business and in technology, there are other companies and countries which pose far less risk, with which American companies can partner.  

From a political perspective, accepting Ren’s offer would be a sign that the trade war is just about clawing back America’s digital dominance, at the price of farmers and factory workers who belong on that trade war poster with Huawei.

In the end, Huawei’s PR efforts tell us things about Huawei that it may not have intended to disclose. The hope is that those who hear the message understand the meaning.