Meng Wanzhou, the deputy chairwoman of the board and chief financial officer of Huawei, was arrested in December 2018 while transferring planes in Vancouver as she was en route to Mexico from Hong Kong.
Meng was charged with “conspiracy to defraud multiple international institutions.” She has since been under house arrest in her multi-million dollar home in Vancouver.
On December 1, 2019, the first anniversary of her arrest in Canada, Meng issued an open letter describing how the arrest affected her lifestyle and how she experienced pain, fear, disappointment, and helplessness in the one year she was detained in Canada.
Her letter was not received well by the Chinese public. In the letter, she wrote at length about how she has accepted her current circumstances and that she no longer fears the unknown.
Numerous users posted the numbers 996, 985, 251, and 404 in the comments below her letter on Weibo, a social media platform that resembles Twitter about how Huawei lost the support.
The numbers refer to a former Huawei employee, who graduated from one of China’s 985 top universities. The employee worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, and was jailed for over seven months after he demanded his severance pay when his contract hadn’t been renewed.
His story went viral on the Chinese internet and generated angry responses online, which were later censored by the Chinese government.
The man, Li Hongyuan was later released from prison with no charges and was compensated by the government for wrongful imprisonment. Li shared his story online around the same time Meng issued her letter, and this was when things started to heat up.
A comment by Jiang Feng, a Chinese psychologist, perfectly captures the sentiments of the Chinese public.
He writes, “One enjoyed a sunny Canadian mansion while the other enjoyed the cold and damp detention cell in Shenzhen.”
The comment was made on Zhihu, which is a question-and-answer site similar to Quora.
The Chinese public considers Huawei to be the crown jewel of the country’s tech industry. Many Chinese proudly splurge on Huawei phones and stray away from devices by other brands.
The backlash due to the imprisonment of a longtime employee has made it clear that the Chinese are beginning to dislike Huawei.
Users on Chinese social media sites are talking about boycotting Huawei products altogether. Images of a pair of handcuffs with Huawei’s branding have been circulating online, with the captions publicizing them as a new smart-fitness wristband.
The depth of the sentiments of the Chinese people can be understood when we look at the company’s circumstances and their reaction from just a few months ago.
Following Meng’s arrest, messages supporting Meng and Huawei flooded Chinese social media sites.
As reported by research firm Canalys, Huawei’s smartphone sales went up by 66 percent from the previous year, and sales of competing brands like Apple and Samsung declined.
Now, many Chinese middle-class professionals worry that what happened to Li Hongyuan could also happen to them. Articles about life in jail in the Longgang detention center are circulating on social media sites.
The magnitude of censorship by the Chinese government has only added to the outrage.
Winning back the hearts of the Chinese public will be a difficult challenge for Huawei.