An online campaign against the alleged mistreatment of an ex-employee at Huawei in mainland China is drawing inspiration from the Hong Kong protests in a development that is likely to concern Beijing.
After news of the alleged wrongful detention of a former employee of the telecoms equipment group went viral on social media in China last week, users published more than 20,000 posts drawing parallels between the Huawei situation and Hong Kong, Financial Times analysis showed.
While China has a vibrant social media scene, the posts on Huawei represent the first sustained campaign in the country to draw on the Hong Kong protests.
One popular post by Chen Youxi, a prominent Chinese lawyer, said the case of Huawei ex-employee Li Hongyuan, who was detained for 251 days after a labour dispute, showed that Hong Kong people were justified in their opposition to a proposed extradition law that sparked the protests.
The bill, which was later withdrawn, would have allowed people in Hong Kong to be extradited to China, where long detentions without charges or trial are common.
“After this Huawei [incident], which has made the hairs stand up on the back of our necks, now everyone suddenly realises how important reasonable bail conditions are . . . and why it is correct that the Hong Kong protesters were against the extradition bill,” Mr Chen Youxi wrote in the post, which was subsequently censored on Weibo, the social media platform.
Since Hong Kong’s protests erupted in June, the Chinese Communist party’s greatest fear has been that the unrest would spill over into mainland China.
Beijing has gone to extreme lengths to prevent this, detaining mainland Chinese who have publicly expressed support for the protests.
“Beijing is afraid of piggyback actions inside mainland China, especially in China’s southern provinces like Guangdong, where many people understand Cantonese, the language spoken in Hong Kong,” said Willy Lam, a professor of Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
China has also embarked on an aggressive propaganda campaign to portray the Hong Kong protests as the work of an unpatriotic minority backed by the US.
While this pro-government narrative has dominated social media, the emergence of some posts relating to the Huawei situation with Hong Kong represents an unusual departure from the official line.
The controversy over Huawei was sparked by the case of Mr Li, a 13-year veteran of the company who was accused by management of extortion over a pay dispute and detained by local police.
A Chinese court ruled that there was insufficient evidence against him and awarded him Rmb108,000 ($15,400) in compensation but not before his detention had generated a wave of anger online.
Comments about the case were viewed more than 220m times last week, according to an analysis by an online news portal run by the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist party.
In some of these posts, disgruntled mainland Chinese social media users repurposed one of the key slogans of the Hong Kong protesters: “five demands, not one less”, referring to the five things the territory’s demonstrators want from the government, including an independent police inquiry and universal suffrage.
An online post titled “eight demands, not one less” began circulating on mainland Chinese social media, calling for among other things an independent investigation into the actions of Huawei and the Shenzhen police.
“It’s extraordinary because it shows there are chinks in the armour of China’s propaganda machinery,” said Chinese University’s Mr Lam of the posts.
Huawei declined to respond to specific requests for comment but offered an official response that Mr Li’s case “was not a labour dispute, and we reported the suspected illegal conduct to the authorities”.