Research Notes

Huawei’s charm offensive: Playing nice with schoolchildren in Italy and Portugal and the Taliban in Afghanistan

While summer is coming to an end in Northern Hemisphere, in the Southern Hemisphere, spring is just beginning. In June 2023 Blomberg revealed how Huawei spied on Danish telecom operator TDC during the bidding process for its 5G vendor. Bloomberg tells the story in “Intrigue in Copenhagen: A Tale of High-Stakes Corporate Espionage”, a video with over 500,000 views.
Subsequently, Danish newspapers including Børsen have revealed how Huawei and the Chinese ambassador to Denmark, Deng Ying, pressured the Danish government around the $200 million deal.  When TDC opted not for Huawei, the Chinese ambassador and Huawei director for Denmark Yang Lan were relieved of their posts and returned to China. Then Danish Prime Minister and current Foreign Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen declared, “I think you should always be satisfied that you do not give in to pressure.

In various reports, Strand Consult has documented Huawei’s techniques of influence across countries. The company employs the aforementioned espionage and threats but also charm offensives, purposeful marketing displays intended to promote the narrative that it is a trustworthy company that wants the best for everything and everyone. This note describes such tactics in Afghanistan, Italy, and Portugal.

In Afghanistan, Huawei engaged in a strategic planning meeting and concluded a deal to supply the Taliban with “advanced camera systems” for every province in Afghanistan.

Separately, the Taliban conducts a War Against Women and Girls, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and should be investigated for crimes against human and gender persecution. Recently the Taliban ordered hair and beauty salons to close, saying such services are forbidden by the Koran and that they cause economic hardship to grooms. It seems that Huawei’s experience in policing Muslims in China could be a selling point to the Taliban.

In contrast to Afghanistan where girls are barred from school, in Portugal and Italy, girls and children attend classes on a Huawei “SmartBus”, lectures and training purported to instill cyber safety, anti-bullying, and digital literacy.

Huawei tweeted a statement from Italian Education Minister Paola Frassinetti in which she states

The SmartBus report provides a very useful analysis of knowledge and cybersecurity, highlighting the importance of training. Italian schools are working on both technological innovation and digital transformation, with a plan that aims to accompany students in the acquisition of digital skills and projects that are increasingly homogeneous and extensive. The training concerns teachers and involves parents and families more.

The interesting question is whether the racial and gender discrimination which Huawei enables in for the repressive governments of China and Afghanistan is discussed on the SmartBus. Moreover, concepts of freedom of information and expression, the bedroom of digital literary, are likely absent from the SmartBus curriculum.

Authoritarianism is not unique to Asia. Italy and Portugal have dark histories of dictators not that long ago. How could a company like Huawei have helped the dictators who were in power in Italy from 1922-1943 or Portugal from 1926-1974? How would a Huawei history and civics bus report the facts to European children? Do they discuss the current oppression in China and Afghanistan enabled by their equipment?

Strand Consult’s report You Are Not Welcome: An Analysis of Thousands of Foreign Technology Companies Blocked by China Since 1996 details China’s systematic restriction of foreign content and services for the last three decades. Strand Consult’s CEO John Strand has sent this report to the Italian Minister of Education, Paola Frassinetti, recommending that the Italian schools that receive Huawei digital literacy training supplement their learning with Strand Consult’s report so that they can put the technology in its proper context.

Network equipment vendors are cognizant of politics. Note how many companies promote their LGBTQ+ bona fides for Pride. This discussion is absent from Huawei’s website. The Chinese government recently shutdown Beijing’s LGBT center. Sadly, Huawei’s tactics whether espionage or the charm offensive, reflect China’s ambition. The Huawei shakedown in Denmark, a country ranked #9 in the world for economic freedom, should make buyers consider whether they can trust the company and its allegiance to China. RWR Advisory details this is in its video China and State Ties.

Strand Consult’s report Fact Check: 10 Myths That Drive Huawei’s Media Narrative describes Huawei’s corporate communication, its go to market strategy, and how it conceives and rolls out concepts like the SmartBus in Portugal and Italy. Apparently, the elected leaders in these countries don’t sense personal responsibility and reputational risk.

Strand Consult has noted the many European and American employees have resigned from Huawei and disassociated themselves with a firm which employs deliberate and harmful technology of discrimination. Employment with the firm has become career limiting.

To learn more about the corporate culture in Huawei, see this Huawei employee recognition ceremony linking corporate service to the country’s ambition.

For more information about Strand Consult’s research on Security and China, please contact us.