Huawei has ordered its employees to cancel technical meetings with US contacts and repatriated Americans working at its Shenzhen headquarters, as tension rises between the Chinese telecoms group and the US government.
Dang Wenshuan, Huawei’s chief strategy architect, said American citizens working in research and development at Huawei’s headquarters were sent back to the US two weeks ago, after the Trump administration blacklisted the Chinese group and 68 affiliates.
A workshop that was under way at the time of the announcement was hastily disbanded, and American delegates were asked to remove their laptops, isolate their networks and leave the Huawei premises.
“We don’t know what will happen . . . We don’t know the boundary of the law, we have to be whiter than white,” Mr Dang told the Financial Times in a recent interview.
Huawei also spent several days making significant changes to the way its offices in China and the US communicate with one another, in order to ensure all its interactions were compliant with the “entity list”, which requires US suppliers to seek government approval to sell parts and components to the group.
Huawei is also limiting interactions more broadly between employees and any American citizens, Mr Dang added.
Huawei said it has been checking that overseas visitors to its campus do not hold American passports, and warned those who do that their private conversations must not touch on any topics related to technology.
One US citizen based in China was surprised to receive a polite message from a longstanding business contact at Huawei that postponed all contact until further notice. The message, seen by the FT, said: “Because of our side’s regulation, we are not allowed to meet US citizens to discuss affairs related to technology.”
But lawyers question the extent to which the steps have been brought on by US action.
“It doesn’t appear these measures address the issues the US government has raised with them,” said Eric Crusius, a partner at law firm Holland & Knight, in reference to US charges against the Chinese telecoms group of corporate theft and violating sanctions against Iran, as well as concerns that Huawei may be used by the Chinese government to conduct espionage through its 5G network overseas.
“In some respects, separating the US and Chinese operations could be seen as a good thing, since it isolates the US business. But in another way, it could look as if Huawei is shutting itself off from the rest of the world, which would not be a good thing.”
Huawei executives argue that Washington is creating a schism in the tech world, fuelled in part by concerns over espionage and IP theft, as well as a more fundamental fear of China’s rising tech prowess. They say that as the biggest global supplier of telecoms kit, Huawei has become a lightning rod for those fears.
Additional reporting by Kiran Stacey in Washington