Exclusive: Inside Huawei’s shifting public relations strategy

Vancouver (Toronto Star) — Black velvet stilettos. Sparkling cocktail dresses, designer handbags and purple skirts — all paired with a black ankle monitor. Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou’s outfits during recent public appearances are a far cry from the sweatpants and hoodies she used to wear, and the change in attire seems to mirror a recent shift in her company’s public relations strategy.

Every move she makes — and every move the company makes — is under intense media scrutiny these days. While he declined to answer questions about Meng’s evolving attire, Huawei Canada’s vice-president of corporate affairs acknowledges that the company is consciously trying to tweak its public image.

Alykhan Velshi told Star Vancouver in an exclusive one-on-one interview that the company’s decision to pull a national advertising campaign two weeks before the start of the federal election campaign was a move to steer clear of politics.

“There are so many sensitivities surrounding Huawei and elections. We’ve made a decision to stay out,” Velshi said with a smile, over a recent coffee on a Starbucks patio.

“Although I’m resigned to the fact that politicians may want to make us an election issue, we don’t want to make ourselves an election issue,” he added, noting that the campaign that was pulled was mostly a social media campaign about improving connectivity in Canada.

Huawei is the world’s largest producer of network equipment for telecom and internet companies. Over the past year, the United States has rallied its allies to ban Huawei on grounds of security risks, citing the company’s close ties with the Chinese government.

Meanwhile, Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei — Meng’s father — said last month that he is open to selling Huawei’s existing 5G patents, licences, source code and production know-how to a Western buyer.

But experts say Huawei’s noticeably greater transparency won’t do much for its international image, since in many countries, the company has become emblematic of anxieties about China’s rise as a superpower.

Samm Sacks, who researches China’s technology policy at the New America think tank, says Ren’s “brilliant tactical offer” would still make little difference.

“He’s saying, ‘I’m going to give you the source code and you could create your own competitor. We won’t even have market dominance.’ But it doesn’t matter what they do. Because the attacks on Huawei are not actually even about Huawei — they’re about the Communist Party of China, which is seen as an existential threat.”

Velshi said that since he started his role in April, he has prioritized answering questions from Canadian media and members of the public about how the company would respond if Beijing demands its co-operation.

“Even if the company wanted to violate the law, we can’t. Huawei doesn’t sell equipment into the core, which is where customer data exists. … All we tell governments is that any decision you make is based on technology and security because on those grounds, we feel very confident.”

Velshi’s predecessor, Scott Bradley, had been with the company since 2011, but quit in January in the midst of growing global controversy surrounding Meng’s arrest and the Chinese government’s furious reaction.

After Vancouver police arrested Meng last December on an extradition request by the United States, China arrested Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, and continues to detain them to this day on vague charges related to national security. Meng is out on bail in Vancouver, but remains under partial house arrest.

The Chinese government also toughened the sentence of a Canadian held on drug charges — changing a 15-year prison sentence to the death sentence — and blocked Canadian canola exports to China.

A Conservative government under Andrew Scheer would ban Huawei from Canada’s next generation wireless networks, as first reported by the Star in May.

Christopher Balding, an associate professor of economics at Fulbright University Vietnam, said he finds it interesting how quickly the tide is turning against Huawei worldwide.

Balding said he doesn’t think that’s happening because of ideological differences, but rather because countries are looking closely at Huawei’s security protocols and finding them lacking.

“The (Chinese government) backdoor access issue is something people focus on and Huawei encourages but is largely irrelevant. You don’t need a backdoor if all the windows and doors are wide open and keys are in the door,” Balding said.

In April, the latest analysis from the National Cyber Security Centre in the U.K. found that Huawei technology features “significant cyber security and availability risks” and noted the company does not have a “credible plan” to mitigate security flaws that might enable espionage.

So far, the criticism hasn’t appeared to significantly dampen Huawei’s profits. The company’s global revenue jumped 24 per cent in the first nine months of 2019 compared to the same period last year.

However, the company has said it expects U.S. export restrictions to reduce annual revenue, in part because Google can no longer sell Android updates and apps for use in the Chinese company’s smartphones, as the U.S. has blocked domestic companies from using Huawei technology.

Australia and New Zealand have also blocked domestic telecommunications companies from using Huawei technology.

Velshi declined to provide Canadian sales figures, saying the information was commercially sensitive.

Simon Fraser University political scientist Stewart Prest says it is not unusual for a private company such as Huawei to try to avoid politics, and to position itself to work with whichever government wins power.

But he said Canadian politicians have no choice but to face the Huawei question.

“Canada is stuck between an established superpower and an emerging superpower. Huawei has become a focal point for competition between the U.S. and China and that’s not going to change. The countries that are going to be part of Huawei’s network are going to be looked at differently than countries that are not.”

The U.S. has lobbied its allies, including Canada, to ban Huawei products from its 5G networks, and the issue has divided the Five Eyes security alliance, which usually responds in lockstep in such matters.

The Canadian government is expected to make a decision on Huawei’s involvement in 5G networks following the Oct. 21 federal election, according to analysts.

Canada needs more information from the United States about the nature of the potential security threat the U.S. believes the company poses, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told reporters in July.

With files from Alex Boutilier and The Canadian Press

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