British Huawei executive becomes unlikely social media star as Chinese rally to tech giant's defence

Huawei's global cyber-security chief, Mr John Suffolk, faced tough questions over the Chinese telecoms giant before Britain's Parliament earlier this week.
Huawei's global cyber-security chief, Mr John Suffolk, faced tough questions over the Chinese telecoms giant before Britain's Parliament earlier this week.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BEIJING (WASHINGTON POST) - Chinese netizens posting to the social-media site Weibo this week threw their support behind an unlikely Internet sensation: a bespectacled British Huawei executive who defended the Chinese telecom giant before Britain's Parliament.

Among Weibo's trending topics on Wednesday (June 12), alongside a South Korean pop idol and a difficult-to-summarise story involving two frogs, was Mr John Suffolk, Huawei's global cyber-security chief, who parried parliamentarians' questions this week about whether Huawei posed a security threat.

His defence of the company, reported by China's Global Times newspaper, quickly went viral, drawing praise from Chinese Weibo users far and wide.

"A lovely old man. Let's go, Huawei!" one proclaimed. "Frankly speaking, I knew Huawei was amazing, but now I know it's freaking amazing," said another. A third Weibo poster pronounced Mr Suffolk "chill".

Chinese citizens have robustly supported their government in its months-long trade war with the United States, but recent US action to counter Huawei has propelled Chinese passions to new levels.

Many Chinese citizens carry Huawei phones in their pockets and are proud of the company's success in selling its products around the globe. Huawei is one of China's largest companies, with global sales last year of more than US$105 billion (S$143 billion), and is seen as a national champion.

Huawei is "a symbol of the national future of China", said Professor Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing. "The people know, the government knows, that if Huawei cannot survive, this country will have no hope for rejuvenation."

 
 

Chinese loyalty to the company, which sells phones and telecoms network equipment, has helped give it the financial might to compete globally.

Huawei is by far the largest smartphone seller in China, with a 26 per cent market share last year, when it shipped 100 million new phones, according to research firm IDC. Apple, by comparison, held 9 per cent of the Chinese market.

Washington has taken several steps to block Huawei's overseas expansion, warning that the Chinese government could use Huawei telecoms equipment installed overseas to spy on the West.

In its latest salvo, the Trump administration banned companies from selling US technology to Huawei, prompting Google and other firms to stop supplying software and parts.

Washington also has pressured allied countries not to buy Huawei equipment, and banned US government agencies from acquiring the gear. And last year the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced plans to block US telecoms and Internet carriers from using federal subsidies to buy foreign equipment deemed to pose a security threat.

Huawei has denied the US spying accusations, and attempted to defend its business on several fronts.

On Wednesday, it filed a submission to the FCC to try to stop the federal subsidy ban, saying it would harm rural telecoms carriers that rely on Huawei equipment and would not improve US national security. The FCC has yet to hold a final vote on the measure.

In an interview to discuss that filing, Huawei executives in the US said China's economic and military might was partly motivating US action to block the company.

"There's a geopolitical overlay," said Mr Andy Purdy, chief security officer at Huawei US. "Technology competition between China and Chinese companies and the US and US companies" is playing a role in the conflict, he said.

Chinese consumers see Washington's anti-Huawei action as an affront to the country.

 
 

"As a Chinese person I'd like to support (Huawei), more or less out of patriotism," a 37-year-old who would identify himself only by his last name, Zhang, said as he left a central Beijing Huawei store on Wednesday, carrying his Huawei phone.

Another Huawei customer, who identified himself only as Wang, said US action against the company "makes me favour Huawei more".

Earlier this week, speaking at a British hearing about the security of UK telecoms networks, Huawei's Mr Suffolk faced tough questioning from members of Parliament about whether the company could be forced to support Chinese spying.

Britain, like other countries, is weighing how much Huawei gear to use in its networks.

"There's a law in China that requires Chinese companies to cooperate actively with the intelligence services. So certainly that applies to Huawei in China, doesn't it?" one MP asked.

"No laws in China obligate us to work with the Chinese government on anything whatsoever," Mr Suffolk said.

His testimony, reported late on Tuesday, Beijing time, by Chinese media, sparked viral support from Chinese Weibo users. "The more I learn about Huawei the more I respect them," one wrote.

Public backing for the company has taken many forms. Some Chinese companies have offered employees incentives to buy Huawei phones.

The founder of a Henan-based company announced on Weibo that staff would get 1,000 yuan (S$197) for using Huawei devices, saying their purchases would "support the great rejuvenation of China".

Some of the pro-Huawei fervour has sparked criticism, however.

In February, a music video showing children praising Huawei went viral on Chinese social media. The video, featuring school children singing a song called "Huawei the Beautiful", was made by a production company in southern China.

The song lyrics were written by Li Yourong, a former member of the People's Liberation Army's song and dance troupe, and Zang Sijia, who also does contract writing for China's Public Security.

Many praised the video, but some Weibo users criticised it as "disgusting" and resembling the kind of propaganda that North Korea produces. Huawei said it had nothing to do with the video's production.