Your browser is out of date. Some of the content on this site will not work properly as a result.
Upgrade your browser for a faster, better, and safer web experience.

Inside the world’s most controversial company

 

Huawei is not your average company. The Chinese technology giant, which manufactures smartphones and 5G wireless technology, has been dubbed a national security threat by the Trump administration due to its alleged links with the Chinese government. Its 5G (fifth-generation) networking technology has been prohibited in Australia, Japan and New Zealand over fears that it could be used for international espionage and Germany, Canada and the UK are reportedly considering their own bans. Huawei has also been accused of violating international trade sanctions, stealing intellectual property and secretly helping to build North Korea’s wireless network.

Understandably intrigued by the company, photojournalist Kevin Frayer approached its executives to ask about shooting daily life in the heart of China’s Silicon Valley. “I felt it was crucial to visit and see what it was all about,” he says. “I approached them with the idea of showing people a glimpse of the working culture at one of the world’s largest technology companies.” Despite the company’s reputation for secrecy, it agreed and Frayer was allowed to “roam around and explore” its headquarters in Bantian, Shenzhen and its new Ox Horn campus in Dongguan, 30 miles away. “It was less about trying to see what the company was making than who was making it,” he says. “To take people beyond the Huawei headlines of the day and give them a small sense of what the company looks like and who works there.”

Frayer found the Shenzen headquarters to be much like any corporate office, but walked into another world when he entered Ox Horn. “Both places are huge, even by Chinese standards where things are rarely subtle,” he says. “But [Ox Horn] is overwhelming when you first arrive and discover how spread out everything is. It is self-sufficient with restaurants, sports facilities and its own transportation system. It runs like a small city and seems incredibly efficient”.

Rather than following the sleek modern styles of Silicon Valley, Huawei has gone the other way at Ox Horn. The sprawling campus, which cost $1.4 billion to build, was inspired by European cities, with replicas of Versailles, Budapest’s Liberty Bridge and Heidelberg’s main square included in the three-and-a-half square miles of grounds. There are Verona-like arched walkways for those who want to walk, and red trams imported from Switzerland for those who don’t. “Instead of being designed to appear visually modern from the outside, it is the exact opposite; an interesting juxtaposition to the high-tech innovation going on inside,” says Frayer.

But there is a message beyond the architectural flourishes. “In the manmade stream running through the new campus, there is a gardener who feeds the Australian black swans that roam wild,” says Frayer. “[They are] a philosophical reminder that an economic ‘black swan’ is an event with major consequences that people did not see coming. The message to employees: avoid corporate complacency.”

“There are more than 60,000 people working across the locations [I photographed],” says Frayer. “Jobs at Huawei are among the best paying and most coveted in China for highly skilled workers, and many of the employees have been educated overseas or at the country’s top schools.” The perks are considerable for those who come onboard. There is subsidised housing and catering and a library, as well as sports facilities and hotels on the campuses with evening activities, including art classes, available for staff.

Huawei was founded in 1987 by Ren Zhengfei, a former People’s Liberation Army engineer who began the firm with three members of staff and the equivalent of £4,000. It now employs over 180,000 people worldwide and posted revenues of over $100 billion last year.

While its smartphones have brought a great deal of success, it is Huawei’s 5G technology that is leading the world – and leading the company into controversy. A lot of excitement has been generated by the promise of lightning-fast downloads to mobile phones, but there is more to the technology than watching old episodes of Friends on the go. Faster wireless technology could enable the mass adoption of self-driving cars, robotic surgery, automated farming and postal deliveries by drone.

This new intelligent ecosystem would also allow for the harvesting of unprecedented levels of data. Data which, argue Huawei’s critics, the company could share with the Chinese government via backdoors built into its products. These fears led to the US government banning federal agencies from using Huawei products and pressuring its allies to follow suit. Huawei responded by suing the US government.

“The US says we are a threat to its national security; they should provide evidence,” Ren Zhengfei told CNN in a rare interview in March 2019, shortly after the suit was filed. “When we expanded into overseas markets, some people said we were communists. Then, when we returned to China, other people said we were capitalists… We don’t know whether we are communists or capitalists, and we don’t waste time trying to explain who we are.”

As it denies claims of hacking, Huawei is also facing a trial over its alleged breaking of sanctions. In December 2018, the company’s CFO, Ren Zhengfei’s daughter Meng Wanzhou, was arrested in Canada at the request of the US. American authorities have accused her of violating sanctions on Iran and of lying to US banks about the violation. She denies the allegations. Released on a US$7.5 million bail, Wanzhou is awaiting her extradition hearing which is expected to begin in January 2020 and last up to ten months. China has responded with anger to the arrest – Lu Shaye, China’s ambassador to Canada, has said it amounts to “Western egotism and white supremacy”.

“The employees I spoke to were genuinely concerned with the controversies and what they believe are misconceptions about the company,” says Frayer. “They were very aware of the political challenges and the American view, and they went to lengths to explain to me that Huawei is a tech company trying to innovate like any other. I am not sure how it will all play out, but Huawei’s growth doesn’t appear to be slowing at all.”

Throughout the court cases and controversies, Huawei’s advances in 5G continue apace. In October China’s three major telecom providers rolled out commercial 5G services using Huawei technology, two months ahead of schedule. The initial launch saw major cities including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hangzhou come online, with the aim to bring 5G to over 50 Chinese cities by early 2020.

Almost half of Huawei’s employees and 10 percent of its sales revenue are devoted to research and development. This level of investment has led to worries that countries not using Huawei’s cutting-edge technology will be left behind and risk damaging their own future infrastructure. That fear has now been combined with increased pressure from the Chinese government – in June the Chinese ambassador to the UK warned that excluding Huawei from 5G development sends a “bad signal”. The final decision on a UK ban is still under review.

In September 2019 the company announced it had signed contracts to help build 50 commercial 5G networks globally. Despite the political difficulties of doing business overseas, Huawei evidently still has big international plans. “I think the company regards how they are perceived overseas and their success in the global market as very important,” says Frayer. “China is big, but you can see Huawei wants to be much bigger than just China.”

A slower, more reflective type of journalism”
Creative Review

Jam-packed with information... a counterpoint to the speedy news feeds we've grown accustomed to”
Creative Review

A leisurely (and contrary) look backwards over the previous three months”
The Telegraph

Quality, intelligence and inspiration: the trilogy that drives the makers of Delayed Gratification”
El Mundo

Refreshing... parries the rush of 24-hour news with 'slow journalism'”
The Telegraph

A very cool magazine... It's like if Greenland Sharks made a newspaper”
Qi podcast

The UK's second-best magazine” Ian Hislop
Editor, Private Eye
Private Eye Magazine

Perhaps we could all get used to this Delayed idea...”
BBC Radio 4 - Today Programme