The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened Western suspicion towards China and Huawei is clearly worried that may cause further problems for its UK operations.

Scott Bicheno

April 14, 2020

4 Min Read
Nervous Huawei launches fresh UK charm offensive

The COVID-19 pandemic has heightened Western suspicion towards China and Huawei is clearly worried that may cause further problems for its UK operations.

Huawei places such importance on it relationship with the UK government that it moved its Global Head of Government Affairs, Victor Zhang, to head up UK communications for the company at the start of this year. The move appeared to have paid dividends when we decided not to ban Huawei from our 5G networks at the end of January, but that seems like a lifetime ago and coronavirus has changed everything.

Apparently conscious of this, Zhang published an open letter yesterday entitled ‘Helping keep Britain connected’. As the title implies, much of it was the usual stuff about how much better off we are with Huawei kit in our networks. But the clear subtext was a plea to the government not to let the current circumstances tempt it into reversing its January decision.

“We have built trust in our UK business over 20 years by helping our customers – the mobile network operators – provide consumers with affordable, reliable calls and data,” wrote Zhang. “Despite this, there has been groundless criticism from some about Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s 5G rollout. And there are those who choose to continue to attack us without presenting any evidence. Disrupting our involvement in the 5G rollout would do Britain a disservice.”

The UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is currently convalescing after being heavily hit by the virus, but if some of his back-bench MPs are anything to go by, the letter has not been as well received as Zhang will have hoped. Iain Duncan Smith is a former leader of the Conservative party, who has previously criticised the government position on Huawei.

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Meanwhile Conservative MP Bob Seely is taking every opportunity he can to tweet articles calling suspicion on the Chinese government and, by extension, Chinese companies, who are widely thought to be open to state interference in their affairs.

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If these two claim to represent the UK establishment consensus, it seems not everyone got the memo. Sir Mike Rake, who has recently done sterling service on behalf of Huawei in the UK, has become a prime beneficiary of the company’s spending spree charm offensive by being appointed to its UK board of directors. He joins Lord John Browne, Sir Ken Olisa, Sir Andrew Cahn as one of the knights of the Huawei table.

“The importance of good communication infrastructure has never been more vital, as the Covid-19 crisis emphasises every day,” said Rake. “We are all getting used to working and communicating in different ways in these difficult times and I am passionate about making sure everyone can get affordable, reliable and quick connections at home and at work. Huawei and its world leading technology is vital to that. At BT, I saw first-hand how Huawei worked with Britain’s leading operators to roll out broadband, 3G and 4G. I look forward to working with them again on the next generation of technology as the company extends its 20 year track record in the UK.”

“I am very pleased that Sir Michael is joining the Huawei UK Board,” said Browne. “The current global crisis has demonstrated the importance of world-leading connectivity. Technology and innovation are critical to economic development, and I look forward to working with Sir Michael to support Huawei’s contribution to the UK.”

“Sir Michael brings a wealth of relevant experience to our boardroom and I look forward to working with him as we enter the next phase of our partnership with Britain,” said Zhang. “We’re working round the clock to keep the UK connected through the current crisis and bring affordable, reliable 5G to every corner of the country – so millions more can benefit from fast digital connections. I am delighted Sir Michael has agreed to join the board and help us continue this important journey.”

The Huawei charm offensive isn’t limited to the UK either. The company has previously donated a bunch of kit across Europe including two million face masks. While it insists such moves have nothing to do with PR, Huawei is finding it difficult to avoid having its efforts conflated with the global narrative battle regarding who is to blame for things having got so bad.

Impossible though it seems, the US has grown even more hostile to Huawei as a result of the pandemic. An organisation called 5G Action Now, which was created to ‘elevate the conversation regarding American national security and the economic benefits of winning the 5G innovation and deployment battle against China,’ reckons Huawei is trying to exploit the crisis for 5G positioning.

“Unfortunately, yet again, we are seeing how the Chinese government uses economic extortion to win Huawei and ZTE 5G contracts around the world,” said Mike Rogers, Chairman of 5G Action Now. “It’s not surprising at all that they are using the COVID-19 crisis to advance the party’s goals of digital and economic dominance. Nothing comes from Beijing without strings.”

It’s undeniable that Western sentiment towards the Chinese Communist Party has hardened considerably as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which originated there. Unfortunately for Huawei, an increasing number of influential people in countries allied to the US now feel mistrust of the Chinese state automatically extends to its companies.

About the Author(s)

Scott Bicheno

As the Editorial Director of, Scott oversees all editorial activity on the site and also manages the Intelligence arm, which focuses on analysis and bespoke content.
Scott has been covering the mobile phone and broader technology industries for over ten years. Prior to Scott was the primary smartphone specialist at industry analyst Strategy Analytics’. Before that Scott was a technology journalist, covering the PC and telecoms sectors from a business perspective.
Follow him @scottbicheno

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