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Bookworm Festival Pulse: Huawei Panel Q&A

with Joe Kelly, Vice President for Corporate Communications at Huawei, and Elliot Zaagman, technology columnist and consultant.

Edited for length and clarity.

BLF: At least one audience question referred to ethno-nationalism. What place do you think Huawei holds in Chinese culture and the Chinese psyche, especially after the latest crisis, but even before?

EZ: They’re the best tech company in China. If you look at the ways that China is a leader in technology in the world, if you took Huawei out of that mix, there are very few areas where they are leading to that degree. If you contrast that with the US, which has many strong tech companies — well, China also has many good tech companies, but Huawei is the only one that’s a global elite, aside from some of these AI startups that have a lot of potential. If you took it away, which the US has been more aggressive about trying to do, it’s like taking a queen off a chessboard. They don’t have as much without it. […] It’s very evident that [Huawei] is tied with the Chinese nation and people. You look at their entire senior management team, they’re all from China, they only list Chinese universities they’ve been educated at. They say that, for example, Lenovo is a global company with Chinese roots, and Huawei is a very, very Chinese company that does business globally. The fact that they’ve had success abroad, and they produce very good products, and they make a lot of things well, is a source of pride for China. Ethno-nationalism is not something I really subscribe to, but it is something that you see a lot in China, and it is something that is used to unify the culture at Huawei. That does pose an issue, because […] it’s very difficult for you to really be a part of it. It’s the same thing with a Chinese vision of the world that is largely based on Chinese nationalism; how do you be part of it if you’re not Chinese? And that’s a very big question. […] That idea of ethno-nationalism can be very cohesive internally, but I think it does have some issues externally.

JK: It’s mostly anecdotal. When I meet Chinese people for the first time, and they learn I work for Huawei, they go, “Wow!” That’s kind of seen, almost, as a status. Currently the Chinese people are proud of Huawei. They’re proud of our technology, they’re proud to carry our phones. And if I go back six years, everyone wanted an iPhone, that was the aspirational product to have. Today, my Chinese neighbors, my Chinese friends, who don’t work for the company, are very happy and proud to have Huawei phones.

 

BLF, to JK: You got a few audience questions about company ethics. Do you have a written company policy on ethics?

JK: We have something called our Business Conduct Guidelines, which every one of the 180,000 staff including me, has to read, understand, and pass a test on, and then sign once a year. That covers things like complying with the law, whatever the law might be wherever we operate, it includes keeping customer data and networks safe, it governs the way in which we think and operate. It basically means that we have to comply with all laws. And I’ve been signing that contract every year since I started; it’s been around for quite a long time. I kind of feel like Huawei is a good mix between these global standards, technology standards, for how companies operate, how they think, what they do, with some Chinese culture as well. But for sure many of the cultural aspects of Huawei that I have to live with are very familiar. I’ve complied with similar rules in other companies around the world.

 

BLF, to EZ: On the panel, Joe talked a bit about how, as [Huawei] expands on the global stage, they’re learning more about how these multinational companies do business, and have written ethics policies. I’m interested in your experience working with Chinese companies, maybe on a smaller level. Is ethics something that’s discussed often in Chinese tech?

EZ: No, it’s usually not discussed. This is an issue with China in general. I do think that there is a vacuum when it comes to things like ethical principles. There are a lot of reasons for that. It doesn’t mean that there are [no ethical principles]. But it does mean that they are many times subordinated to broader goals. […] And the issue is that there are lines that can get crossed in China that might not get crossed elsewhere. I don’t want to say that China is a bad actor and that Chinese companies are bad actors and that other countries and companies aren’t — it’s a tricky thing. Trying to define Chinese ethics and how they work in the context of technology, where ethics are more and more important, is a tricky thing. And especially now, when the Communist Party has more control than it used to, and its number one principle is […] control. How does that get embedded into technology in the future? That’s something that is concerning to me. It doesn’t mean that it can’t be worked out in a way that is beneficial for humanity, but it is a concern.

BLF: Do you think that might have to do with a greater alignment between the goals of Huawei and the goals of the State here, than you can say for most multinational corporations?

EZ: [The goals of Huawei] have been very much aligned with the goals of the Chinese state. We’ve seen over the last 6 or 7 years that Chinese companies and China itself has exerted more influence globally while internally becoming more closed. I think Huawei seems to be representative of that, as well; they seem to be quite closed internally, while spreading themselves globally. That I consider to be a fundamental contradiction. It is always a two-way street. It’s something I mentioned towards the end [of the panel]. You see China putting a lot more money into propaganda, you see Huawei putting a lot more money into PR, but it’s always to get their message out, what I don’t hear is anyone interested in how they can work with and learn about and meet the values and interests and cultures of the countries where they do business. And to me, that’s offensive.

JK: Huawei’s goals are very simple. They’ve got nothing to do with the goals of any state. Number one is, grow the business. Number two, look after the interests of customers. Number three, lead in innovation. We do that. We invest very heavily to do that. $15 billion in R&D last year, $13.8 billion in the year before. We’re one of the largest intellectual property owners in the world. So we’re driven. The loudest voice I hear inside Huawei is the voice of the customer. It’s not the voice of the investor, because we don’t have institutional investors. It’s not even the voice of the managers. It’s the voice of the customer. What the customer wants, the customer must get. And I think that that’s a culture that many companies talk about, but maybe some have forgotten what it really looks like.

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