How Huawei Lost the Heart of the Chinese Public

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On the first anniversary of her arrest in Canada, Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of the Chinese telecom giant Huawei, issued an open letter describing how she experienced fear, pain, disappointment, helplessness, torment and acceptance of the unknown.

She wrote at length about the support she received from her colleagues, about friendly people at a courthouse in Vancouver and about “numerous” Chinese online users who expressed their trust.

Her letter, posted on Monday, was not well received on the Chinese internet, where Ms. Meng is known — in a term meant to be endearing — as “princess” because she is a daughter of Huawei’s founder, Ren Zhengfei.

On the Twitter-like social media platform Weibo, many users posted the numbers 985, 996, 251 and 404 in the comment section below her letter. They were slyly referring to a former Huawei employee who graduated from one of the country’s top universities in a program code-named 985, worked from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week and was jailed for 251 days after he demanded severance pay when his contract wasn’t renewed.

His story went viral in China, generating angry responses online. That resulted in 404 error messages as articles and comments were deleted, a sign of China’s censors at work.

The former employee, Li Hongyuan, was eventually released from jail with no charges and received $15,000 in government compensation last week. He shared his story online last week, and that’s when the hit to Huawei’s reputation began.

In China, however, Huawei has been considered the crown jewel of the country’s tech industry and has enjoyed tremendous good will. Many Chinese proudly abandoned their iPhones for Huawei phones. But the backlash to the jailing of a longtime employee after a labor dispute has made it clear that people in China are starting to sour on the company 

“Huawei has the right, and in fact a duty, to report the facts of any suspected illegal conduct to authorities. We respect the decisions made by the authorities,” the statement said. “If Li Hongyuan believes that he has suffered damages or that his rights have been infringed, we support his right to seek satisfaction through legal means, up to and including lawsuit against Huawei.”

Online commentators called the statement “arrogant” and “cold blooded.” “The elephant stepped on you, but you can step back on it,” one popular WeChat article said. “What a response of justice!”

Jiang Jingjing, a blogger, criticized Huawei for trampling on its employees’ rights with its tough performance evaluation system and legal firepower. “Once a company becomes a cold, dehumanized grinding machine, what’s the point for it to exist?” he wrote.

After Ms. Meng’s arrest, there was an outpouring of support for Huawei. In the most recent quarter, Huawei’s smartphone sales in China grew 66 percent from a year earlier. Sales for Apple and most of Huawei’s domestic competitors declined, according to the research firm Canalys.

Now many people are talking about boycotting Huawei products. Images of a pair of Huawei-branded handcuffs are circulating online as a new, smart-fitness wristband. One of the “bands” is called the “free meal and accommodation version,” referring to jail life.

Tang Ting, a public relations executive, posted on his WeChat social media timeline that the outrage could cause long-lasting damage for Huawei’s brand. Chinese companies think consumers respond only to freebies and discounts, he wrote, “but a very high percentage of the young generation care about values, too.”

In a sign that many middle-class professionals are worried that what happened to Mr. Li could happen to them, online users circulated articles about jail life, especially in the Longgang detention center in Shenzhen, where Mr. Li spent more than eight months. Huawei is based in Shenzhen’s Longgang district.

Some online users are circulating a three-part blog post by a programmer who spent over a year in the detention center for working on gaming and gambling software. Gambling is illegal in China. The blogger wrote in detail what it was like to live in a 355-square-foot cell with 55 people in tropical weather — what they ate, wore and did every day.

Many Chinese are especially outraged by the degree to which news coverage and online responses have been censored. They say they feel helpless because they can’t criticize the government. Now they feel they are also not able to criticize a giant corporation.

One of the Weibo posts of Ms. Meng’s letter received 1,400 comments. Many simply said 251, the number of days Mr. Li was detained. Fewer than 10 comments, sympathetic ones, are still visible to the public.

“A company that’s too big to criticize is even scarier than a company that’s too big to fail,” Nie Huihua, an economics professor at Renmin University in Beijing, told the news site Jiemian on Tuesday.

Jiemian’s interview with Mr. Li, published on Monday, was deleted.

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Sahred From Source link Technology