Huawei hosted a public relations event in China today called “A Coffee With Ren,” a made-for-TV special with CEO Ren Zhengfei. And while there were plenty of newsworthy moments, including the confirmation that Huawei phone sales are expected to slump 40 percent in coming years, the media spectacle was pretty awkward—especially when reporters from CNN and the Washington Post started asking questions.
The Q&A portion of the event included questions from reporters at various Chinese state media outlets that were answered directly. But once the first major American news outlet started asking questions, the format seemed to change for no good reason.
When it was time for the American reporters, the moderator suddenly decided that all of the questions should be asked ahead of time, and then they’d return to the panel for answers. Somehow the moderator ran out of time for Huawei’s CEO to answer questions about China’s internet censorship and the blocking of American tech companies in the country.
“A question for the whole panel and I’ll start with Mr. Ren,” the CNN reporter said. “You talked about the internet generation and how ideology has not been diluted. And the future is going to be brighter and not darker. And you also talked about using Google Maps to see how fish is farmed around the world, very interesting...”
“I am curious about your views on China’s vast search apparatus, which has blocked Google’s search and map functions in your country, and other U.S. and foreign tech. Can the future be as bright as you envision when you have a whole generation that has been sort of walled off for that kind of information?” the CNN reporter asked. “And some people in China pointed out that this sort of walling off was inviting back retaliation eventually.”
Ren never did get around to answering the question, which is a good one as the U.S. and China trade barbs over whether Huawei could be used by the Chinese government to spy on Americans. Huawei believes that it’s being persecuted in the U.S., as the U.S. Commerce Department recently placed Huawei on the so-called Entity List that forbids companies like Google, Intel, and Broadcomm from doing business with the Chinese tech giant.
The U.S. Justice Department is even suing Huawei for fraud, obstruction of justice, and the theft of trade secrets, though the company denies any wrongdoing and claim that they’re being shut out simply because American companies can’t compete. But where does that leave American companies in China? As the CNN reporter pointed out, China has strict regulations that restrict the free flow of information and locks out American tech giants like Google and Facebook.
The “Coffee With Ren” event was livestreamed on YouTube and Twitter by CGTN, an English-language media channel controlled by Beijing. The event was clearly intended for a western audience, which anyone could guess not just because YouTube and Twitter are blocked in China. The panel included George Gilder, a conservative commentator and former speechwriter for President Nixon as well as Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab.
Huawei did not respond to an inquiry about how much Gilder and Negroponte had been paid for the event, but Negroponte made a really good point in the Chinese government’s favor that speaks to the potential national security threat in the eyes of President Donald Trump. Negroponte pointed out that Trump has recently signaled he’s ready to loosen restrictions on Huawei if the Chinese government provides trade concessions to the U.S. during the ongoing trade war.
“Clearly it’s not about national security. We don’t trade national security,” Negroponte said.
But it’s not entirely clear that Negroponte understands what motivates President Trump. The president isn’t terribly concerned about issues of national security, as was made abundantly clear last week during Trump’s interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.
When asked if candidates should be able to receive intelligence from a foreign government to swing an election (something that’s very illegal under current law), Trump said that the FBI was wrong and that it would be fine. Everyone does it, Trump claims.
And that pretty much says it all when it comes to Trump’s real priorities. Huawei knows that all they really need to do to butter up Trump is get on his good side, and they might get a reprieve, which is why the Chinese tech company clearly hasn’t given up on the American market yet. In fact, Ren wasn’t shy about heaping praise on Trump during an interview in January.
“Huawei is only a sesame seed in the trade conflict between China and the U.S.,” Ren said back in January during the start of his current press campaign.
“Trump is a great president. He dares to massively cut taxes, which will benefit business. But you have to treat well the companies and countries so that they are willing to invest in the U.S. and the government will be able to collect enough tax.”
Good effort, Huawei. Let’s see if it pays off.