Huawei: The story of a controversial company
It was 1 December 2018. US President Donald Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping were dining on grilled sirloin followed by caramel rolled pancakes at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires.
They had a lot to discuss. The US and China were in the middle of a trade war – imposing tariffs on each other’s goods – and growth forecasts for both countries had recently been cut as a result. This was adding to the fear of a slowing global economy.
In the event, the two leaders agreed a truce in the trade war, with Donald Trump tweeting that “Relations with China have taken a BIG leap forward!”
Xi Jinping and Donald Trump at dinner, December 2018
But thousands of kilometres north in Canada, an arrest was taking place that would throw doubt on this rapprochement.
Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer and Ren Zhengfei’s eldest daughter, had been detained by Canadian officials while transferring between flights at Vancouver airport.
The arrest had come at the request of the US, who accused her of breaking sanctions against Iran.
“When she was detained, as her father, my heart broke,” says Ren, visibly emotional. “How could I watch my child suffer like this? But what happened, has happened. We can only depend on the law to solve this problem.”
Meng Wanzhou being driven to court in Canada
Huawei’s problems were just beginning. Nearly two months later, the US Department of Justice filed two indictments against Huawei and Ms Meng.
Under the first indictment, Huawei and Ms Meng were charged with misleading banks and the US government about their business in Iran.
The second indictment – against Huawei – involved criminal charges including obstruction of justice and the attempted theft of trade secrets.
Both Huawei and Ms Meng deny the charges.
January 2019: Acting US attorney general Matthew Whittaker announces charges against Huawei and Meng Wanzhou
The charge of stealing trade secrets centres on a robotic tool – developed by T-Mobile – known as Tappy.
According to legal documents, Huawei had tried to buy Tappy, a device which mimicked human fingers by tapping mobile phone screens rapidly to test responsiveness.
T-Mobile was in partnership with Huawei at the time, but it rebuffed the Chinese firm’s offers, fearing it would use the technology to make phones for T-Mobile’s competitors.
It’s alleged that one of Huawei’s US employees then smuggled Tappy’s robotic arm into his satchel so that he could send its details to colleagues in China.
After the alleged theft was discovered, the Huawei employee claimed that the arm had mistakenly fallen into his bag.
Huawei claimed that the employee had been acting alone, and the case was settled out of court in 2014. But the latest case is built on email trails between managers in China and the company’s US employees, linking Huawei management to the alleged theft.
The indictment also details evidence of a bonus scheme from 2013, offering Huawei employees financial rewards for stealing confidential information from competitors.
Huawei has denied any such scheme exists.
Meng Wanzhou, photographed in 2014
This is not the first time that Huawei has been accused of stealing trade secrets. Over the years companies like Cisco, Nortel and Motorola have all pointed the finger at the Chinese firm.
But US fears about Huawei are about much more than industrial espionage. For more than a decade, the US government has seen the company as little more than an arm of the Chinese Communist Party.