Huawei's logo at their research near Ottawa, Canada. Picture: REUTERS/CHRIS WATTIE
Huawei's logo at their research near Ottawa, Canada. Picture: REUTERS/CHRIS WATTIE

Beijing — China’s Huawei has launched an unprecedented public relations blitz, thrusting its low-key founder in front of international media as the telecoms company seeks to ease concern among Western nations bent on shutting it out of their markets.

The move, with significant personnel change in its 300-strong corporate affairs department, comes as the world’s largest telecommunications equipment maker battles fear of Chinese authorities accessing its infrastructure for espionage.

In a 25-minute interview aired late on Sunday — his first with state-controlled China Central Television (CCTV) — Huawei Technologies  CE Ren Zhengfei shrugged off the global push against his group, which has repeatedly denied any state links.

“If you do [your product] well, there is no need to worry about sales… It would be stupid on their part if they don’t buy,” the 74-year-old said in a one-on-one, adding to three group interviews last week with English, Chinese and Japanese media outlets.

“It would be their loss,” Ren said, referring to the US and other Western countries that have restricted Huawei in their markets.

Before last week, Ren had had no more than 10 interviews across media since founding Huawei in 1987, CCTV said. He last met international media at Davos in 2015.

“My public relations department forced me,” a smiling Ren told CCTV when asked why he had opened up to the media. “I must make our clients understand us, make our 180,000 employees understand us, come together and get through this tough time.”

Personal attack 

The comments come as Polish authorities arrested a Huawei executive on spying allegations earlier in January, fuelling Western suspicion against Huawei on security grounds.

While the Chinese national who was immediately sacked by Huawei denied the allegations, Huawei is bracing for fallout from its biggest Western markets as Germany debates whether to follow the US and allies such as Australia in restricting Huawei’s market access.

The group has been shut out of Australia and New Zealand’s markets for fifth-generation (5G) mobile telecoms equipment, while the US President Donald Trump is considering an outright ban on all Huawei equipment with an executive order.

Huawei is nevertheless seeing fast growth, securing 30 contracts to supply 5G equipment and shipping 25,000 5G base stations already — up from 25 contracts in December, Ren told CCTV.

A person close to Ren  said the CE felt the need to talk to the media after the string of negative events overshadowed the company’s business over the past year.

Among the most high-profile events was the arrest in Canada of Ren’s daughter, Huawei CFO Meng Wenzhou, on allegations of contravention of US sanctions against Iran.

“With all the attacks over the past year, now it got personal — when your daughter gets arrested,” said the person, who was not authorised to speak with media and so declined to be identified.

The arrest was made at the request of the US, and further strained Sino-US relations  while trade friction was already threatening to undermine ties.

Still, with his daughter released on bail and awaiting a US extradition request, Ren, in an interview with international media last week, described Trump as a “great president”.

Firefighting 

Ren’s media engagement was part of a broader public relations offensive by a company the traditional opaqueness of which stemmed from being in a highly competitive sector and having significant R&D programmes, “perhaps lending credence to misperceptions we are too secretive”, said Chen Lifang, president of public affairs.

“Huawei is very concerned about misunderstandings which continue to linger despite our best efforts in recent years,” Chen said. “Huawei is committed to being even more open and transparent for not only this year but the foreseeable future.”

The company expanded its international communications team 25% to 30 people in the past six months as it stepped up engagement with foreign media, including tours to research labs that had not previously been open to outsiders.

Among major personnel changes, Huawei’s president of global media and communications, Joy Tan, moved to Washington to run media and government relations operations there, while Song Kai, former deputy CEO of Huawei US and former CEO of Huawei France, moved back to headquarters to take over Tan’s role.

Huawei’s Washington office had more than halved in size over the past year to a low single-digit regular complement, with some staff voluntarily leaving the group as it was pushed out of the market, said informed sources.

Reuters reported earlier  in January that Huawei Canada’s vice-president of corporate affairs had left the group as scrutiny of the company deepened.

Some Huawei employees described the rapid turn in the international environment as beyond their imagination.

“The AT&T deal at the start of the year was like the party about to start,” a member of Huawei”s public relations team  said, referring to a partnership with US group AT&T. 

“And then suddenly the house caught fire, the party became firefighting, and then the fire spread to more and more places…. Now we decided we’ve just had enough. It’s time to be proactive and open ourselves up to the world.”

Reuters