Huawei, only recently hailed as a patriotic champion of Chinese technology in the face of US sanctions and a global campaign to blacklist its 5G telecoms network, is facing criticism within China over its role in the 251-day detention of a former employee.
The case of Li Hongyuan, a 13-year veteran accused by the company of extortion and subsequently jailed by local police, is shining a new light on Huawei’s long hours, aggressive “wolf culture” and brutal workplace norms.
Such concerns have long trailed the company but had receded over the past year as it battled criticism from several governments. However, Mr Li’s treatment in China is now being compared with that of Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s former chief financial officer and daughter of founder Ren Zhengfei.
Ms Meng is being held under house arrest in her six-bedroom mansion in Canada over allegations that she broke US sanctions against Iran.
Mr Li’s jailing came to light last week with a court ruling awarding him compensation for his unwarranted detention. The court ruled there was insufficient evidence against him and awarded him Rmb108,000 ($15,000) in compensation.
The amount of compensation a court awarded Li Hongyuan for his illegal detention
He joined Huawei as an engineer in 2005 and left the company in January 2018. After a pay dispute, he was detained by Shenzhen police in December 2018 and jailed until August, according to a court document.
News of Mr Li’s case spread over the internet this week with users on China’s Weibo platform using a series of coded numbers to demonstrate support for Mr Li and evade censors. They included “996”, for the 9am to 9pm, six days a week work schedule for Chinese tech employees, and “251” for the length of Mr Li’s detention.
On Thursday, when state broadcaster CCTV posted about a new Huawei lawsuit against the US, comments on the article included “Lock up Meng Wanzhou for 251 years”. They were later deleted.
The 42-year-old Mr Li’s detention has also struck a nerve for many in China’s expanding middle class, serving as a reminder of the tenuous state of the rule of law in the mainland for any individual when facing powerful interests.
Huawei is “so powerful that it can make the government and judicial authorities pay more attention to its disputes than ordinary companies”, said labour rights lawyer Pang Kun, who practices in Shenzhen where Huawei is headquartered. He said every year the local police jail more than 10 people having disputes with Huawei.
“Huawei has the right, and in fact a duty, to report the facts of any suspected illegal conduct to authorities,” the company said in a statement, declining to comment further.
Mr Li’s case adds to a spate of employees complaining of maltreatment at the hands of the tech giant in recent weeks. One 12-year veteran alleged the company forced her to resign because of her age and pregnancy.
Local business weekly Caixin reported on Wednesday that five other former employees were detained by police in December 2018 over various disputes with Huawei. By Thursday, Caixin had removed the article.
The domestic public relations crisis comes at a pivotal moment for Huawei, as the company increasingly relies on Chinese consumers to propel its growth.
Huawei’s smartphone sales abroad have stagnated amid uncertainty over long-term support from US companies and the rollout of new phones that lack must-have apps, such as Google Maps. At home, Huawei’s phone sales rose 66 per cent in the third quarter, according to Canalys.
Additional reporting by Nian Liu in Beijing