Huawei case highlights the real US-China imbalance

Meng Wanzhou is facing criminal charges over alleged Iran sanctions violations. (Reuters pic)

WASHINGTON: On March 7, Huawei Technologies held a press conference to announce it’s suing the US government, arguing that a law passed last year barring the Chinese company’s equipment from certain networks is unconstitutional.

A week earlier, its CFO Meng Wanzhou sued Canadian authorities alleging wrongful detention.

Meanwhile, the Shenzhen-based telecom equipment maker has sought to recruit foreign journalists for its public-relations team, taken out advertisements in overseas media to press its case, and intensified its activity on Twitter to include criticism of the US legal system and “a call for truth and justice for the good of global citizens.”

The irony is that no foreign organisation could dream of attempting the same in China.

This imbalance has worked in Huawei’s favour.

A months-long PR and lobbying campaign overseas have softened the stance of foreign governments and regulators, helping combat the perception that the company is a conduit for espionage by Beijing.

That’s moved it toward the company’s likely end goal: winning more business with telecom operators.

The dichotomy isn’t unique to Huawei.

China’s government has also leveraged the openness of developed-nation democracies to push its message while refusing the same opportunities at home.

China blocks its citizens from accessing Twitter, yet the country’s state-controlled media and government agencies have dozens of accounts with the US social media service that they use to spread Beijing’s agenda.

One editor-in-chief even regularly criticises foreign governments on his personal timeline, a practice that would probably land him in detention if it was directed at his own government.

Huawei and Meng may have credible arguments to make against US and Canadian authorities, but the real victory for them is in being able to make them at all.

It’s unlikely a foreign company in China would be afforded similar opportunities to appeal directly to public opinion or battle the government in court.

US President Donald Trump has focused much effort on rebalancing trade with China, decrying what he sees as the country’s manipulation of their bilateral relationship.

He’s also criticised Beijing for intellectual property violations and theft of technology.

His decision to raise tariffs on Chinese goods may have forced Beijing to the negotiating table, with the eventual goal of striking a more favourable trade accord.

Yet in his dealings with Beijing, there’s been little recognition of how China is exploiting democratic values for its own gain.

When an open society with free speech and the rule of law engages with one that has neither, that relationship is invariably lop-sided.

China’s Communist Party sees control of information as an issue of survival.

It’s unlikely that Washington will be able to easily redress the balance by persuading China to adopt freedom of speech, open access to foreign media, or the rule of law.

But neither should the US play into China’s hands by conflating policy with legal due process, which is exactly what Trump did when he suggested last year that he might intervene in the Meng case if it helps him to win a trade deal.

Last year, Trump reversed sanctions on another Chinese company, ZTE, after citing trade negotiations and his “personal relationship” with President Xi Jinping.

This muddying of the waters has come back to hurt both the US and Canadian governments by emboldening Huawei to launch these two legal attacks, as outlined by a tweet the company sent when announcing the US lawsuit.

We should celebrate Huawei’s right to utilise Canadian and US freedoms and due process to argue its case against those governments.

The contrast with China highlights the inherent strength of open democratic systems and shows why these liberal values are too important to be used as a bargaining chip.

As the US president seeks to rein in China and strike a better deal, he will need to remember that you can’t put a tariff on freedom.