Day 6

'They see themselves as this historic, world shaping company': What one reporter learned about Huawei's vision

Ahead of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou's extradition hearing, Wired reporter Garrett Graff shares what he learned from several executives during a trip to the company's campus in Shenzhen, China.

Wired reporter Garrett Graff travelled to Huawei's campus near Shenzhen, China last year

Donald Trump “may actually split and decouple the global unified internet into two internets,” says Garret Graff on the global influence of Huawei's legal battles with the U.S. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)

Though notorious for their secrecy, the world's second largest smartphone manufacturer, Huawei, pulled back their curtain for one reporter.

Garret Graff, national security writer at Wired, travelled to China last year to visit one of Huawei's campuses to explore the tech tension between U.S. and China. He spoke with Huawei executives about the company's future ambitions.

Graff's story, featured in the February edition of Wired, comes just days before Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou extradition trial is set to begin in Vancouver. The Huawei executive was arrested at Vancouver International Airport after an extradition request from the U.S. in Dec. 2018.

Day 6 host Brent Bambury spoke to Graff about what he heard from Huawei executives about the company's tensions with the U.S.

Here is part of their conversation. 

What is that story they [Huawei] want to tell? Ideally, what are they hoping you will tell us about Huawei? 

They really want to convince the West that they are not a tool of the Chinese government, and [they want to] talk about their cool and innovative technology.

One of the oddities is Huawei is a household name around much of the world. They are the second largest manufacturer of smartphones in the world after Apple, and yet those phones are not available anywhere inside the United States. Most Americans had never heard of the company before the Trump administration started its fight with them.

Did they convince you that they were not a tool of the Chinese government?

I don't think that they can actually convince anyone.

The structure of the Chinese government, the structure of the Chinese economy [and] the structure ... of Chinese national security law makes clear that there is not a lot of space between private companies [in China] and the whims of the Chinese Communist Party.

You got behind those doors and visited one of Huawei's campuses near Shenzhen last year. Tell us about the campus and what it revealed to you about how Huawei sees itself.

This was one of their research and development campuses about an hour north of Shenzhen, which is their main headquarters.

Totally new buildings ... home eventually to 25,000 research and development employees, and it is the strangest, most surreal sight I have ever come across because you are standing there on the outskirts of this Chinese city and every part of this [Huawei] facility is modeled after villages in Europe.

There is one part of the campus that is Paris … and through the whole campus, you use a Swiss imported train to navigate your way across campus.

So it was a very strange experience and I think it is a very clear sign of what Huawei's global ambitions are. That they see themselves as this historic, world shaping company. 

Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s CFO, is set to appear in court on Jan. 20, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Meng Wanzhou's detention has to do with allegations that Huawei broke U.S. sanctions on Iran and her trial should it happen is part of a much bigger strategy by the U.S. to block Huawei's global expansion. How successful has that strategy been for the U.S. so far? 

Much less successful than the U.S. thought it would be, to be frank.

And in conversations with Trump administration officials, they really expressed surprise that Western allies — countries like Germany and the U.K., first and foremost — have not been willing to stand with the U.S. on a very clear line of saying "No Huawei."

In the year since Meng was arrested, Huawei's profits went up significantly. What does that tell you about the direction Huawei is heading now?

It certainly makes clear that the U.S. pressure is not an existential threat to the future of Huawei.

I think one of the most surprising aspects of this is that Donald Trump may end up being ultimately successful in blocking Huawei's access to much of the Western network, but that in doing so, he may actually split and decouple the global unified internet into two internets.

One that is Western in nature and primarily driven by Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon, and one that is primarily driven by Chinese companies [such as] Alibaba, Tencent, Baidu, and Huawei. 

Obviously [there is] no indication of Huawei being interested in backing down from its efforts to expand global influence, but then they still have Meng's possible trial if she's extradited. How concerned is Ren [Zhengfei, Huawei CEO] and his company and all the executives about what might happen to Meng? 

They are deeply concerned about her [and] they're deeply concerned about themselves. One of the intriguing bits of the U.S. indictment in court papers is that there are other defendants who have not been unsealed.

There are no shortage of Huawei executives who have actually curtailed their travel to Western countries because they don't actually know whether there are U.S. arrest warrants out waiting for them if they land in Canada or the U.K. or other extradition friendly Western countries.

So I think that this is a company that has seen its global ambitions humbled in some key ways over these last two years by this fight with the U.S. government.

Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Click Listen near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


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