A French academic, Valerie Niquet, a senior research fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research, is being sued by Huawei France. The Chinese telecom giant has accused Niquet of libel, and, as @HuaweiFactsFR explained in a tweet on November 23 (in French): “In March 2019, #Huawei has filed three lawsuits for libel against a private individual. The complaints are against the authors of the arguments broadcast, and not the media that broadcast them. Huawei respects their independence and press freedom.”

In a photographed statement in the same tweet, Huawei further explains that “The suits are only against the affirmations that Huawei is a company controlled by the Chinese State and the Chinese Communist Party, directed by a former member of the Chinese intelligence service, and which uses its technological know-how in order to engage in acts of espionage to endanger the Western world. Huawei considers these statements highly defamatory. Huawei is a private company, 100 per cent owned by its employees. In 30 years, there has never been a cyber-security issue on Huawei products.”

File photo: pxhere.com.

This is all signed off with the hashtag #HuaweiFacts. As far as facts are concerned, the tweet does not give too many. The incident referred to is from an interview that Niquet gave to the programme “C dans l’air” – a current events talk show on France 5 TV, on February 7, 2019.

According to the verbatim transcript, Niquet didn’t quite say the words she was accused of having said and, in particular, didn’t mention a “former member of the Chinese intelligence service,” but remarked that “nobody would have ever given to a Soviet company the means to monitor the entirety of the Western world communication system, and here, it’s what is being done with Huawei. Now, Huawei is directly under the control of the State and the Chinese Communist Party, which has a real power strategy.”

Given that it is a truth universally acknowledged, including by Chinese authorities themselves, that in most Chinese companies, whether in China or overseas, there are Party branches – the statements by Niquet would seem pretty tame. After all, since the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, came to power, he has been adamant that the Party itself must consolidate and expand its presence in society – whether in the mass media (whose family name has to be “Party,” as Xi said in February 2016 during a high-profile visit to the top three state-run media outlets) or among all sorts of business, whether state-owned or not. And since 2017, under the Chinese National Intelligence Law, every Chinese company became duty-bound to surrender all data in their possession to authorities. So, Niquet, in those remarks about Huawei, has simply connected a few pretty large dots, but the lawsuit would show that Huawei is none too happy about it.

The Great Hall. File Photo: Lukas Messmer/HKFP.

This seems to be part of a new, puzzling approach being adopted quite rapidly: on the one hand, a strong insistence to be liked – or else – and on the other, a bullying attitude that is not exactly the defining characteristic of winning personalities.

What is surprising is how fast the new approach is becoming popular when there are frictions: Huawei sues those it dislikes, whether in France or the United States (where the Federal Communications Commission is being sued by Huawei for damaging its sales in the US, after it voted to bar American telecommunications companies from buying Huawei or ZTE equipment with federal subsidies, calling them a security threat) and further afield. In Denmark, the Chinese ambassador has just threatened to scrap a free trade deal with the Faroe Islands if Faroese officials chose not to adopt Huawei for their 5G network, according to a recording obtained by the Danish newspaper Berlingske.

Huawei is only one of the many throwing its weight around. Look at the recent spate of bewilderingly rude and bombastic tweets from Chinese diplomats and from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs itself, who seem to believe that US President Donald Trump’s Twitter account style is an example to be followed. Or look at the few gangs of mainland students who go around threatening those demonstrating in favour of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters, shouting like angry landlords that “Hong Kong belongs to China” – as if this gave anyone the right to infringe on others’ liberties and freedom of expression.

It wasn’t supposed to work out like this, especially in places where the media doesn’t have Party as its family name. When Chinese companies, private, semi-private, or totally State-owned, started to expand abroad, many commentators predicted that this was going to have multiple effects. The world was going to be pulled closer to China, by virtue of the country opening up. But the opposite was going to be true, too, and everyone was going to be all the happier. Chinese companies were going to be scrutinised by the aggressive free media, and the proverbial opacity of Chinese entities was going to be made a bit more transparent, for the general good. If Chinese companies wanted to be listed in international stock markets, they would have to open their books to the media and the regulators, and this mega dose of healthy sunshine was going to spread light all the way back to Beijing.

Huawei at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, 2015. Photo: Kārlis Dambrāns/Flickr.

About two decades into this expansion, the opposite is proving true. Stock exchanges, eager to have as many big high-tech companies listing with them, are less stringent about certain regulations, whether they are about shareholders versus managers voting rights, where the firms’ accounting is done, or other innovative approaches. And while Huawei sues abroad, taking legal action against a Chinese company in the mainland is less than the last resort, since Chinese courts, too, are welcome to take Party as a family name (which is why the whole Hong Kong protests against a proposed extradition agreement with China started).

How much the new lawfare from the likes of Huawei, or the threats issued by ambassadors and student squads to intimidate critics and spread censorship in countries that do not have China’s political system, is now a challenge for everybody to gauge.

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Ilaria Maria Sala

Ilaria Maria Sala is an award winning writer and ceramic artist based in Hong Kong. She has been living in Asia since 1988 - first in Beijing, then Tokyo and Hong Kong, with long detours in Shanghai and Kathmandu. Her byline has appeared in Le Monde, the New York Times, the Guardian, ArtNews, El Periódico and La Stampa, among others. Her latest book is Pechino 1989, published by Una Città in 2019. <a href="https://twitter.com/IlariaMariaSala">Follow her on Twitter.</a>