„Wolf culture“: How Huawei controls its employees in Europe

„Wolf culture“: How Huawei controls its employees in Europe

Wir haben diesen Artikel auch auf Deutsch veröffentlicht.

The journalist with the camera causes nervousness. Minutes after he appears in front of Huawei’s European headquarters in Düsseldorf in mid-November, a stocky security guard and a female employee rush over. The street in front of the building is public space, but the company seems to feel its turf has been violated. „What do you want here?“, the woman asks. „Delete the photos.“

Insights into the inner workings of the controversial Chinese mobile phone company are rare. Huawei has about 200,000 employees worldwide, and about 2,400 in Germany, according to the company. The European headquarters are in Düsseldorf. „We Are A Top Employer!“, a sign in the entrance area reads, beneath it orchids decorate the reception table. In the corridor hangs a photo of a hiking group posing and waving on a mountain peak.

What voices tell us from inside, on the other hand, belies the impression of a friendly atmosphere. They tell of a technology company that seems to see its employees first and foremost as raw materials from which it wants to forge its own success. About a company that moves Chinese employees around like chess pieces, that fires employees at will and where a quasi-military esprit de corps prevails. In Germany, the company sometimes violates the spirit, perhaps even the letter, of labour law.

„Delete the photos“: Huawei feels its turf has been violated by the reporter outside its headquarters in Düsseldorf – Daniel Laufer

This article is the result of months of investigation by netzpolitik.org with media partners of The Signals Network including The Daily Telegraph (United Kingdom), El Mundo (Spain) and Republik (Switzerland). Documents we have seen show, how Huawei reaches into the lives of its employees in order to achieve its goals.

We have spoken to people who have worked for the company in several European countries. Our sources come from China, but also from Germany, they worked for different subsidiaries and departments. Some ex-employees speak well of the corporation, while several interviewees make serious accusations. To protect our sources, we refrain in most cases from mentioning names and other details that could make them identifiable.

Huawei’s „wolf culture“

Their accounts paint a picture of a company that is celebrated in public for it’s seemingly modern management philosophy, but at the same time pushes employees to their limits. Ex-employees speak of a toxic corporate culture that is promoted by the company’s management. The enormous pressure to succeed also plays a role.

Those who play along with all this are rewarded by Huawei with special payments linked to company shares. But what happens when workers refuse to put their lives entirely at the service of their employer is shown by internal emails and covert audio recordings obtained by netzpolitik.org and its media partners, as well as court cases in several countries. The cases dealt with discrimination and dismissals that should never have happened under the law.

Anyone who listens carefully to Huawei’s founder Ren Zhengfei and pays attention to his uncompromising, war-like rhetoric will notice that Huawei makes no secret of its true corporate culture. Ren peppers his speeches with military metaphors and proudly calls his rough style of leadership „wolf culture“. In Europe, too, „wolf culture“ reigns.

Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei (centre) likes to resort to military metaphors to motivate his employees
Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei (centre) likes to resort to military metaphors to motivate his employees – Alle Rechte vorbehalten Daniel Gramage / EC – Audiovisual Service

Top jobs probably only for staff from China

Not everyone is equal in Huawei’s tight hierarchy. Metaphorically speaking, the company has two floors and employees without Chinese roots can occupy only the lower floor — no matter where they are on the official organisation chart. The top level is reserved for expats, Chinese who are sent from the company headquarters in Shenzhen to subsidiaries all over the world.

One ex-employee says there is effectively a glass ceiling for European workers. „When you walk through the corridors, it is very obvious that 99.9 per cent of the management is Chinese.“ That is probably an exaggeration, but it has a core of truth.

Chinese dominance is reflected in the management level of the global group, which says it operates in 170 countries around the world. Of the 17 members of Huawei’s board of directors, 17 are Chinese. The head of Huawei Germany is also Chinese, flanked by a German as Chief Technical Officer. Management positions held by locals appear to be little more than window dressing. „Every German manager had a shadow manager from China standing behind him“, says a former employee at the European headquarters.

A Huawei spokesperson contradicts this account. He says that German managers are not shadowed by Chinese „supervisors“, nor is there a glass ceiling for non-Chinese. He states that just 59 per cent of the management are employees deployed from China.

At the same time, the spokesperson says that in some departments there are „proven dual-head structures with a clear and sensible distribution of tasks“. According to him, it is the task of local managers to take care of local customers, market development and compliance with local law. The Chinese management, on the other hand, serves as an interface to the Chinese management level.

What is clear is that, according to our investigation, different rules presumably apply at Huawei for non-Chinese. They have less access to information and are excluded from important internal decisions, our sources report. At meetings, management personnel sometimes switch to Chinese at crucial moments.

In response to our questions, the company emphasises that the official working language in Europe is English and that, according to internal company rules, meetings between colleagues from different countries have to be held in English. However, several of our sources complained that expats English skills are sometimes poor.

A „small Chinese embassy“ in Düsseldorf

Huawei has 2,400 employees in Düsseldorf. Inside there is a quasi-military esprit de corps, according to ex-employees.
Chinese employees working in Europe are „totally isolated“, says trade unionist Ulrike Saaber – Daniel Laufer

One source compares Huawei’s European headquarters in Düsseldorf to a „small Chinese embassy“ where Chinese employees have built up their own world. Ex-employees say that the areas of responsibility are often defined in such a way that there is little contact between employees from China and those from elsewhere. Chinese and non-Chinese at Huawei are a world apart, even outside of work.

European employees rarely find out what is really going on in the company during the day at work, says a former German employee. However, Chinese colleagues occasionally ask in the evening if they want to have dinner together. „After a few beers, you find out what is going on in the company and what is not.“ Yet many Western employees did not want to get involved and preferred to go home.

Trade unionist Ulrike Saaber from Europe’s largest industrial union IG Metall has established contacts with several former Huawei workers. She describes to netzpolitik.org and its media partners the narrow world in which Chinese expats move. „The Chinese who have their roots and family in China, who only come here to work, they are totally isolated.“

According to Saaber, Chinese expats have little knowledge of German laws and therefore hardly try to claim them for themselves. „It is often the case that these people are drawn together in their free time by representatives of their employer.“ There are informal meetings, he says, where the expats are „oriented“ along company lines. Upon request, Huawei says that joint leisure activities are organised independently by interested colleagues.

Dominance of the „sea turtles“

Year after year, Huawei sends young Chinese abroad. In China, the staff who are meant to earn their spurs away from home are called „sea turtles“. Their typical profile: young, male, well-educated. Our sources indicate there is a clear hierarchy in Huawei’s Europan operation. „Sea turtles“ clearly dominate.

The junior staff are under pressure: hard working conditions and constant control by the company are part of everyday life, fostering the „wolf culture“ that company boss Ren likes to invoke.

One such „sea turtle“ is Joe. Some five years ago, Huawei sends him to Switzerland. He falls in love with a European woman, she becomes pregnant. This is what Joe reports in a joint conversation with our media partner Republik.

For a long time, Joe recounts, he tries to keep his girlfriend a secret, but his boss finds out. One day the man invites him to dinner. After Joe and him share a few beers, the superior asks the question: Is he planning to marry the woman?

The company wants to transfer Joe, away from Switzerland. But Joe resists, so the company threatens him with dismissal. According to Joe, he fears for his safety. In mid-2018, he secretly records a video of a conversation with the HR manager. In making the recording, which netzpolitik.org and our partners have seen, Joe hopes to prove how Huawei deals with employees who want a future outside of China.

On the company website, Huawei promises to promote a caring environment that inspires a good work-life balance.

In the video, Joe can be heard saying, „My wife is going to give birth to our baby so I will probably stay here.“ But the HR manager insists that Joe agrees to a transfer. „The company has the right to decide where you work and you should follow our instructions.“ Joe refuses. He leaves the company in spring 2019.

An internal document with the unwieldy title „Assignment and Mobility Management Regulation“ demonstrates how Huawei has also determined parts of its employees‘ private lives in Western Europe. „Those who’ve obtained residency in an EU country or whose spouses are permanent EU residents and those who have voluntarily applied for permanent residency in the EU must leave Europe as soon as possible“, the company writes in Chinese in the document. „If they don’t follow the order, the company will terminate their employment.“

When asked, Huawei confirms in principle that such internal regulations existed. A spokesperson says that the company has no opinion on the private affairs of its employees. However, expats knew in advance about the conditions of their foreign assignment. If there are conflicts between these and the employee’s private life, „the employee must comply with Huawei’s international assignment policy and the international assignment agreement signed by the employee“.

Days later, a spokesperson tells us that the regulation on residence permits is no longer valid — however, when asked, he did not want to say since when.

„Please don’t tell anyone that I’m learning German“

Cases in which ex-employees of Huawei feel discriminated against ended up in court in Germany and Spain
Cases in which ex-employees of Huawei felt discriminated against ended up in court in Germany and Spain – Daniel Laufer

The consequence of the tough corporate policy is apparently a climate of fear. According to our Düsseldorf sources, the mistrust already starts when expats acquire knowledge of local languages. „Please don’t tell anyone that I’m learning German“, a Chinese employee is reported to have said to a former colleague who spoke to us.

In Spain, a case landed in court in 2018 that shows how Huawei apparently wants to have a say in the family planning of its employees. The plaintiff is a woman who goes by the pseudonym Ana. She accuses the company of sexist discrimination. Ana is Chinese, an expat. For almost a decade she worked in a senior position in the group’s finance department. Huawei sends her to Spain, where she marries a local.

When the woman wants to have a child, the trouble begins. Twice she suffers a miscarriage, twice she calls in sick afterwards. Huawei claims Ana’s work performance has declined and curbs her annual bonus, according to court documents. When she starts fertility treatment and calls in sick again, the company fires her.

Ana sues the company and wins. The court rules that the dismissal was not legal. A spokesperson for Huawei tells netzpolitik.org and its media partners that the Spanish judiciary has never ruled that the dismissal was due to discrimination against a pregnant woman.

However, in a written submission to court, Ana’s lawyer makes serious allegations against Huawei: „This decision to penalise the employee in her remuneration as a consequence for her leaves of absence due to abortions suffered during her pregnancies presents itself no longer as a hint but as direct proof in fact — consequence, of discrimination based on sex, derived from her two frustrated attempts at maternity.“

In the course of the proceedings, a pattern seems to emerge. A member of the workers’ council at Huawei’s subsidiary tells the court that she knows of at least five women who have become mothers and lost their jobs at Huawei. Three of them were Chinese.

Those who resign must sell their shares

There are reasons why Huawei can treat its employees like this and yet hardly anyone rebels. One is the way the company pays its Chinese employees.

After working for Huawei for some time, they receive share certificates in the company, which formally is owned to 99 per cent by Huawei’s union. The shares are used to give employees a cut of the profits. According to the company, this is done to motivate them. For them, the model seems lucrative, but only as long as their plans are aligned with those of Huawei.

In fact, employees do not truly have a stake in the company: anyone who resigns or is fired is forced by the company to sell their shares back. According to a Huawei spokesperson, this is in line with „our long-established, generally known and contractually fixed rules in this area“. The only exceptions are for long-serving, older employees, who are allowed to keep their shares when they retire.

The retirement age in China is 60 for men and 55 for women. At Huawei, however, according to our sources, it is common to end one’s career already in one’s mid-40s. When long-serving Chinese managers reach this age, they often cash out the value of their company shares and effectively retire.

So if an expat decides against returning to China, they not only lose their job, but also this form of retirement provision. „Huawei is a company, not a prison: if you want to quit, you can quit. But this decision is not easy,“ says a source who worked for the European headquarters in Düsseldorf for more than five years, including in the human resources department.

Strict rotation principle for expats

The company is determined to prevent expats from putting down roots outside of China and obtaining residency rights in European countries, says a source who worked for the company for several years. „The internal atmosphere at the company is that if you marry a local person and get citizenship rights, then this is seen as a betrayal“, an ex-employee in London tells our media partner The Daily Telegraph.

One method the company uses to enforce the loyalty of Chinese employees is the strict rotation principle. No expat can stay in the same country outside of China for more than five years. Several sources say that the company wants to prevent Chinese employees from developing close ties to their host country.

Apparently, Huawei categorically refuses to compromise on this. „Upon the completion of a five continuous years assignment in a country, expatriates who are not interfacing with the customers will be relocated regardless of all factors“, Huawei’s guidelines, for Western Europe, state.

In the internal document, the company makes clear what the rule is probably really about: control. „This regulation is hence established to warrant that the expatriates from China adhere to the Company’s arrangements.“

For the group, „the principle of rotation is important and essential at many different levels“, a Huawei spokesperson said. The constant change of location allows the organisation to remain flexible, and employees can gain experience in different roles and countries.

Veterans from the telecoms industry wanted

Huawei values employees with work experience at rival companies, internal documents show
Huawei values employees with work experience at rival companies, internal documents show – Daniel Laufer

Huawei has been suspected of espionage in the West for years. Great Britain, Sweden, Australia and other countries have banned the installation of Huawei components in their 5G networks. In the USA, the company is practically excluded from the market altogether. In December, the Welt am Sonntag reported that a manager had asked employees in Germany to explore and copy the software of a competitor. Accordingly, the company denied the accusation. Accusations against Huawei of helping the Chinese state with espionage have so far been unproven. But there is no doubt that the company plays a key role in China’s quest for technological sovereignty and supremacy.

The book „The Management Transformation of Huawei“ retells the story of the group. In its efforts to gain a foothold outside China, it was not welcomed with open arms. In response, it had to hire local staff in host countries in addition to expats, Wen Li, Xiaoran Chan and Bin Guo write.

In Germany, according to our investigation, Huawei likes to hire veterans from the telecommunications industry who are lured by the salaries of the Chinese company. At its European headquarters in Düsseldorf, it gathers experienced staff.

„A few years at Huawei doesn’t hurt anyone who wants to work in this industry because you can really learn a lot“, says a former German manager who quit in 2019. That year, he says, Huawei was the „biggest gorilla in the whole market“. Another person who worked for the company in Düsseldorf also says: „I don’t regret my time at Huawei, I learned a lot.“

Huawei appears to hold ex-employees of competitors in high regard. That is illustrated by internal documents that netzpolitik.org and its media partners have seen. In HR forms, the firm records, among other things, the work experience of its employees. One line is reserved for competitors, such as Cisco, Ericsson, ZTE. The next line is for experience with potential clients, such as T-Mobile and Telefonica.

Huawei’s subsidiaries pass on personnel data of their German employees to the headquarters in China and a branch in Malaysia, which became known last year through a lawsuit. As first reported by WirtschaftsWoche, the court awarded the employee damages from Huawei because the company refused to provide information about what data it had collected about him and what had happened to it.

Hardly any employees over 50 work at Huawei

Huawei demands discipline and loyalty from its European managers just as it does from its expats. But the loyalty the company demands is only partially met by itself, especially towards older European employees.

We have spoken to several former employees who were fired by the company. Their accounts are similar: „I always did everything exactly by the book“, says one of our sources. Nevertheless, Huawei fired the source after several years of loyal service. The ex-employee doesn’t want to read their name on the internet, to avoid trouble with the company, but says their only offence was their age.

Huawei appears to take pride in its young workforce. Of 194,000 employees worldwide in 2019, only two per cent are older than 50 years, the company says on its website.

Huawei does not like it when someone is employed by the company beyond their 60th birthday, according to several of our sources. According to them, if older employees do not leave voluntarily, Huawei resorts to pressure.

We cannot write details of a number of such cases, because they might allow conclusions to be drawn about the identity of the persons concerned. This could expose them to legal retaliation by the company. According to our sources, Huawei is not squeamish in its choice of means to get rid of workers of advanced age.

In Germany, several cases have ended up in court. In those, Huawei dismissed workers who were around 50 or older without an obvious reason. Some cases have long since been closed and Huawei has paid large sums in compensation. But the company seems to accept legal trouble to get rid of disagreeable staff after years of good service.

A former German manager who worked for the European headquarters for almost ten years says he has heard of dismissals that were not formally correct because, for example, there had been no warning beforehand. „This is then settled with money — the company doesn’t care at all. The main thing is that the problem is solved.“

Huawei probably prefers that those affected leave of their own accord. The company’s tactics are said to include giving them meaningless tasks or no tasks at all, as well as transferring them to other workplaces, sometimes even to other company locations. This is done to disrupt the daily lives of those affected and to give them the feeling that they are no longer welcome at Huawei, is the interpretation of one of those affected. Some talk of harassment. Upon request, Huawei states that it does not resort to any such measures.

Accusations are also made in another European country where the company does business. A labour court in Madrid concludes in November 2020 that Huawei dismissed five of its middle-aged Spanish employees without just cause. The judge ruled that Huawei had discriminated against them, because of their age.

The court awards the victims compensation of 20,000 euros each. According to the court, a speech by founder Ren Zhengfei supposedly shows that such dismissals are company policy, as employees over 50 and over 60 cost the company millions of euros in additional expenses. A German spokesperson insists that Ren’s statement was taken out of context: He had actually wanted to encourage older employees.

According to the spokesperson, Huawei „strictly rejects“ the accusation of age discrimination.

The fear of a workers‘ council

Huawei’s treatment of its employees is also causing frustration among trade unions. Attempts to establish a workers‘ council at Huawei’s European headquarters in Düsseldorf have so far been fruitless, says unionist Ulrike Saaber.

A company spokesperson writes to us that Huawei respects the German Works Constitution Act and has done nothing to prevent the formation of a workers‘ council. „The initiative to establish a workers‘ council lies with the employees, not the company.“

According to Saaber, the union has tried time and again to contact employees, but Chinese workers duck it „because they are afraid“. Without employees willing to even stand, the union is fighting a losing battle. „This undermines the Works Constitution Act, which actually stipulates that a workers‘ council must be formed if there are five or more employees“, says Saaber.

Only in one of Huawei’s German subsidiaries are workers allowed to appoint their own representatives. Huawei had taken over several hundred employees from Ericsson in 2016, most of them union members. After months of negotiations and threats of strikes by workers, Huawei gave in and Huawei Technologies Service GmbH had to accept union collective bargaining and a workers‘ council.

But even that does little to change the power relations in the subsidiary, Saaber speculates. „Personally, I only ever had contact with the German representatives at Huawei TS, even though it was clear that behind every German managing director or HR manager there was some Chinese mirror figure.“ The structures are strictly hierarchical, he said. „The German managing directors have little to say and always have to coordinate all the way to China. They are not actually allowed to decide anything on their own.“

The conditions at Huawei are not only a problem for the company’s workers, but also for its competitors. „If workers‘ rights are not respected — be it in terms of working hours or pay — such companies can offer cheaper. They can operate around the clock without any problems and thus distort competition.“

The Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs under the leadership of Hubertus Heil (SPD) did not want to comment on the Huawei case when asked by netzpolitik.org and its media partners. A spokesperson stated that they do not comment on individual cases.

„Coming second is not an option“

Those who make mistakes sometimes have to practise
Those who make mistakes sometimes have to practise „self-criticism“ in internal meetings in Maoist style, former employees say – Daniel Laufer

Huawei itself takes the position that the only way to get opportunities is through hard work, the Harvard Business Review noted in 2015. It described the company’s culture as „key to success“. For some employees, however, it is more of a burden, as our investigation shows. The pressure to succeed within the company is enormous.

„If you don’t sell anything, you can expect to be demoted“, says a source who worked at the European headquarters for a long time. For the company, it is irrelevant whether success fails to materialise because of one’s own performance or because of external conditions over which employees have no influence. Another person who has worked at the company for more than five years sums up the management philosophy as follows: „Coming second is not an option for Huawei.“

The company’s strict, „wolfish“ company culture is part of its corporate folklore and at the same time part of everyday life. New employees at the company’s headquarters in Shenzhen have to endure a two-week boot camp, the Washington Post reported. Its components include daily training runs at five o’clock in the morning and courses that actually bear the name „brainwashing“.

How deeply military thinking is rooted in the company is also expressed in a framed calligraphy that, according to the New York Times, hangs on the wall at the company’s headquarters. In Chinese script, it reads: „Sacrifice is a soldier’s highest cause. Victory is a soldier’s greatest contribution.“

Errors are pilloried internally

Our sources agree that Huawei regularly punishes its Chinese employees for their alleged failures, often in front of the eyes or ears of colleagues — this also happens at the Düsseldorf headquarters. Via internal e-mail lists, the company sometimes lets everyone know who, in Huawei’s opinion, has not behaved properly and what sanctions have been imposed on them. According to our sources, the company holds its managers responsible for the missteps of individuals. Within the group, they are treated as parents to their employees, their children.

The company frequently hosts what ex-employees call „criticism and self-criticism“, in the style of a communist ritual in the spirit of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. A Chinese manager, for example, had to admit fault in a telephone conference after a bidding process failed, a non-Chinese source tells us, who says they took part in it himself. Everyone present was asked to criticise the man. Our source says they were very uncomfortable. Shortly afterwards, Huawei sent the manager from Düsseldorf back to China.

Self-reflection is „an important principle of our corporate culture“ and served to improve the company and its products and services, Huawei states. Managers are encouraged to discuss the current situation in team meetings and to explore „room for improvement“.

Complaints about working hours at Huawei

When it comes to working hours, the technology company also follows a course that is rather unusual in Europe. Attendance often extends beyond core working hours, in tune with the so-called 9-9-6 principle for employees in China. The principle refers to employees’ suggested presence in the office from nine a.m. to nine p.m., six days a week. In the early years, Huawei even distributed blankets and mattresses to new employees, according to the quasi-official company biography „The Huawei Story“.

In Düsseldorf, working hours from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. are the rule, at least on paper, but according to former employees, Huawei demands much longer hours from employees in some departments. Ex-employees tell of meetings at the European headquarters that are scheduled at 10 p.m. and of offices that are bustling even on Sundays. Chinese employees sometimes slept in their offices, says a former employee.

This is hardly compatible with German labour law. For years, workers at the Düsseldorf site could only enter their arrival in a time recording system, our sources report, but the company did not allow records of the end of working days. Non-Chinese employees rebelled and have since been effectively exempted from the rule. Expats, however, are denied proper recording of their working hours, according to our sources.

A company spokesperson insists to netzpolitik.org and its media partners that working hours are not recorded, but only the attendance of employees. At the same time, he admits that there have indeed been complaints about the recording of attendance at the European headquarters. The competent authority also confirms that complaints under labour law have been received. The Welt am Sonntag had first reported on such complaints. Since 2018, Huawei has been „inspected for compliance with occupational health and safety regulations, in particular the regulations in the Working Hours Act“, the Düsseldorf district government informs us.

Huawei states that it complies with European labour law. Employees are allowed to work after 8 p.m. „on a voluntary basis”, as long as they do not exceed the maximum working hours of ten hours per day. „It is not the case that employees regularly spend the night in the office“, a company spokesperson said.

Image and reality

Sinologist Mareike Ohlberg, who works for the think tank German Marshall Fund, sees Huawei in a pinch. The most important thing for the company is still the Chinese market, she told netzpolitik.org and its media partners. So it has to emphasise its loyalty to the Communist Party. To the outside world, however, Huawei tries to present itself as an international, modern company. „This happens largely in rhetoric and not in practice.“

Ohlberg advises applying the same standard to Huawei as to other technology companies like Google or Apple. She says that just because a company is from China, it should not be allowed to treat its employees badly. If it is active on the German market or in other Western countries, it must also adhere to corresponding ethical standards.

„In terms of the rights you have as an employee, you are often a lot worse off in China than here“, says Ohlberg. „When employees are hired locally here, work cultures and different ways of dealing collide. „In her opinion, however, there is little interest at Huawei in changing the company culture in the long term.

„Heroes are forged, not born“

The illustration of a brochure that the corporation distributes to its employees says a lot about how it seems to see them. As if human beings were raw materials that could be processed in a factory into the perfect soldier. One picture shows a shot-up Russian fighter plane from the Second World War that nevertheless continued to fly, as Huawei points out in the accompanying text. The caption reads, „Heroes are forged, not born.“

Motif from a company brochure
A company brochure uses martial motifs to motivate employees to act decisively – Alle Rechte vorbehalten Huawei

Obviously, the company is trying to inculcate its employees with this fiery management rhetoric. Former employees from Europe with whom we spoke found it strange. Nevertheless, it is apparently practised in the company. Huawei offers an atmosphere of high pressure, but little support or positive feedback, our sources say.

Managers would raise their voices with Chinese employees for even the slightest misconduct. According to former employees, the management system is to blame. In this system, managers often moved back and forth between quite different departments. Several sources tell of bosses who are technically well informed, but who ultimately lack people skills and leadership experience. „It’s a nerd’s den“, says a long-time German employee who has since left Huawei on good terms.

On request, the company claims that the motif with the fighter plane has „nothing specific to do with everyday work at Huawei“. But the graphic could also be seen in an email that has now been obtained by netzpolitik.org and its media partners. The human resources department of the European headquarters sent it to employees via a distribution list as early as August 2019.

The email contains a speech allegedly given by Ren Zhengfei at a swearing-in ceremony for employees. According to the speech, the founder said that Huawei needed to improve the skills of its „warhead teams“ that were closest to customers. He spoke about a „sound of artillery“ that employees in the field could hear. They should form „regional field armies“.

A spokesperson for Huawei says he cannot recognize any generally bellicose pattern in corporate rhetoric.

Rommel as inspiration

Yet the military metaphors are deeply embedded in the group’s DNA. For almost a decade, Ren Zhengfei worked as an engineer for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. When he founded Huawei in 1987, the company initially supplied the military.

Even in everyday life, according to our sources, executives at Huawei like to talk about „generals“ and supposed „battles“ at a „front“. In an e-mail to employees at the European headquarters, Huawei is said to have referred at least once to the Wehrmacht general Erwin Rommel as a source of inspiration. Until recently, there was also a Chinese-language entry on Huawei’s website praising Rommel as an „invincible“ commander in North Africa.

„Victory language“, is what one ex-employee calls the martial language. Some non-Chinese employees apparently found it highly irritating. A company spokesperson asserts that, as a matter of principle, there is no positive reference to Nazi Germany at Huawei.

The bellicose rhetoric and the questionable figure of reference not only fit into the company’s world view, they are even a core element of it’s thinking. Company founder Ren sees economic competition as a constant „struggle for survival“, writes Eric Flamholtz, professor emeritus of management at the University of California, who studied Huawei. Accordingly, Ren sees corporate culture as the „ultimate weapon“.

The investigation

This article is the result of months of investigation on documents reviewed by the media partners of The Signals Network including The Daily Telegraph (United Kingdom), El Mundo (Spain), Republik (Switzerland) and netzpolitik.org (Germany). The Signals Network coordinated the collaboration of this international investigation.

The Signals Network is a European-American non-profit organisation founded by Gilles Raymond and led by Delphine Halgand-Mishra. It partners with a dozen media organisation representing a cumulative audience of 165 million readers in 6 languages. The Signals Network also provides support to selected whistleblowers.

Will the US Help Spread Authoritarianism?

Will the US Help Spread Authoritarianism?

Guest post by Filippo Costa Buranelli

Is the world experiencing an authoritarian backlash? Is democracy receding while authoritarians accrue power, visibility, and legitimacy in international politics?

Signs of authoritarianism can be seen across the globe—great powers such as Russia and China, and influential regional states such as Brazil, India, and Turkey, all display authoritarian traits. Illiberal platforms and parties are on the rise in Europe, as well. A disdain for democratic pluralism, equality of people, immigration, participatory politics, and women’s rights are openly hailed as the right path forward, in what seems to be a truly transnational philosophy.

Academic research calls this “the third wave of autocracy,” and “authoritarian diffusion,” and recent data support this trend: according to Democracy Without Borders, there are 87 democratic states globally compared to 98 a decade ago. “For the first time since 2001, a majority of all states worldwide are no longer under democratic rule,” says the annual Varieties of Democracy report.

In my research on Central Asia, where autocracies have been resilient for the past 30 years, I find that authoritarianism can become normative across countries—that is, it can be seen as appropriate and legitimate—when two mechanisms of socialization are in play: mimicry and praise. The former is the adoption of authoritarian practices from another authoritarian context (e.g., suppression of civil and political rights), while the latter refers to discourse that legitimizes authoritarian governance—for example, congratulating an autocrat for a rigged election.

A question of growing concern is whether the United States is becoming an authoritarian state and whether the US will help to legitimize authoritarianism across the globe.

President Trump and his acolytes have implemented a number of authoritarian practices over the past four years, with an eerie nod to the Eurasian context. The reliance on friends, family members, and members of his business circles to administer the state resembles the neo-patrimonial practices found in Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and beyond, where the distinction between the private and the political is blurred. Trump has fostered the rise of a “sultanistic” power structure in the GOP, where the party largely abandons its core principles to support whatever the leader wants. This is evident in the GOP’s decision not to create a 2020 platform. Instead, it confirmed that “the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.” As in Central Asia, the party and the president are closely interdependent.

With voting already underway in the US, Trump has made abundant references to “forces” willing to sabotage the democratic vote; has dismissed the value of pluralism and democratic procedures; and has made real attempts to rig the vote by hampering mail-in voting. Long before voting began, Trump raised doubts about the election’s integrity, and at a campaign rally in Nevada last month, he declared, “the Democrats are trying to rig this election because that’s the only way they’re going to win.”

Pointing to unnamed “third forces” and demonizing the opposition is a classic authoritarian technique. In the case of Tajikistan, for example, the main opposition party has been made illegal. While Trump refers to far-left fascism, Tajikistan’s Rahmon refers to “terrorism,” and Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev, when in power, referred to “extremism” when describing opposition parties.

Trump’s grandiosity and hyperbole also mimic Central Asian leaders. Trump was recently hailed as the “protector” of the American people by the RNC, in an unsettling reference to Turkmen President’s paternalistic and hierarchical title of Arkadag (incidentally, ‘Protector’). Trump’s approach to the media is also similar to what can be found in the Central Asian region as well as other authoritarian contexts—creating personalized, partisan media outlets, and declaring media sources that challenge his views “enemies of the people.”

Praise is the other enabler of the institutionalization of authoritarianism. Admiration for strongmen, authoritarian practices, and illiberal models of governance reinforce the idea that authoritarianism is not taboo—but should be encouraged. Trump has praised Hungary’s Viktor Orbán; the Philippines’ Duterte; Turkey’s Erdogan; and even Kim Jong Un, about whom Trump said in 2018: “[Kim] is the head of a country and I mean he is the strong head… He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.”

Could the US become a true authoritarian state? The federalized US system, where states offer a pivotal check on federal power, might make that possibility unlikely, as Sarah Churchwell recently noted. Moreover, the US is not situated in an authoritarian “regional ecology” as the Central Asian republics are; there is less opportunity for diffusion of authoritarian ideas and practices than in the tightly knitted regional context of Eurasia.

But Trump’s words and deeds are contributing daily to the slow erosion of the democratic international liberal order and to the institutionalization of authoritarianism world widely. Great powers like the US are global role models; their ability to influence the diffusion of practices far exceeds small authoritarian powers like Tajikistan. The Trump administration’s actions can therefore have significant consequences.

Similarities between the increasing illiberalism in the US and the consolidated authoritarian practices in Central Asia have been met with irony and a certain complacency. But the step from complacency and complicity is often very, very short.

Filippo Costa Buranelli is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of St Andrews, UK.

Political Influence Through Social Media is Growing, But Slowly

Political Influence Through Social Media is Growing, But Slowly

Guest post by Jacob N. Shapiro, Diego Martin, and Julia Ilhardt

Last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified that Russia is using social media, state-run media outlets, and fake online journals to damage Vice President Biden’s chances in the upcoming presidential election. The week before, the US Treasury sanctioned Russian and Ukrainian nationals for interfering in American politics. And earlier this month we learned that the Internet Research Agency was trying to recruit writers for fake news sites intended to influence American politics.

None of this should be surprising. Back in August, the Director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center announced that: “Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment’”. Two days before that, the State Department’s Global Engagement Center detailed Russia’s online disinformation infrastructure. On July 20, Democratic legislators warned of a potential campaign targeting Congress; on July 14, social media analytics firm Graphika reported on Russia’s “Secondary Infektion” campaign that targeted multiple countries in the last six years; and early in the COVID-19 crisis, EU officials found evidence that Russia was using disinformation to worsen the impact of the pandemic.

As disturbing as the current situation is, the United States is far from alone in being a target of state-sponsored disinformation. During the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, fake accounts linked to the Chinese government tried to muddle online discourse. And during the Libyan National Army’s efforts to capture the capital city of Tripoli in 2019, Twitter was flooded with pro-insurgency hashtags originating in Gulf Countries and Egypt.

So how widespread is this problem? Which states are employing these techniques, and who are they targeting?

To find out, we spent the last two years collecting data on 76 state-backed foreign influence efforts from 2011-2019, as well as 20 domestic operations—i.e., when governments use social media manipulation against their own population. Unlike traditional propaganda, these campaigns include the creation of content designed to appear as though it is produced by normal users in the target states. We released the first report on our data in July of 2019, documenting 53 foreign influence efforts, and just released an updated report. Over the past year, we’ve identified a number of significant trends in the use and organization of influence efforts. Here are the key takeaways.

Influence Efforts for Hire

There are dozens of marketing groups specializing in online content, and in recent years some have begun executing political influence efforts.

Take Archimedes Group, a marketing firm based in Israel. The firm’s specialty is “winning campaigns worldwide,” and when Facebook removed a network of accounts linked to the company in May 2019, the political targets ranged across Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. In contrast to the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency whose only documented customer is the government of Russia, Archimedes Group produces content to support a wide range of political goals while obscuring the involvement of state actors.

A similar political marketing firm is Smaat, a Saudi Arabian company operating out of downtown Riyadh. In addition to marketing for clients like Coca Cola and Toyota, Smaat also works for the Saudi Arabian government. In a now-removed Twitter network, Smaat’s fake social media accounts interspersed commercial content with pro-Saudi political messaging.

Not only does the use of these firms make it hard to identify the actors behind social media manipulation, but it also allows states to engage in political interference without having to develop digital infrastructure.

Further obfuscating government involvement in disinformation campaigns is the trend towards hiring local content creators. Networks linked to Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin—who was indicted during the Mueller investigation—paid people in Madagascar and Mozambique to manage election-related Facebook pages. Such tactics make it challenging to distinguish foreign interference from genuine local discourse.

Common Content for Local Audiences

In 13 Central Asian countries in 2019, residents following Facebook pages for Latvian travel or the President of Tajikistan may have unknowingly consumed content from government-linked Russian media outlets. By distributing stories from sources like Sputnik and TOK on pages that omitted or obscured the link to Russia, this campaign spread narratives sympathetic to the Kremlin’s foreign policy initiatives.

The Russian network targeting Central Asia was part of a wider move towards efforts that pushed common content to specific locations. In the first version of our report, only two out of 53 foreign influence efforts targeted multiple countries at once. Nine out of 23 additional campaigns in our 2020 report did so. Like Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have mounted multi-year efforts to promote sweeping, nationalistic content adapted to resemble domestic discourse in multiple countries. And growing evidence suggests China has begun a broad social media campaign targeting the Chinese diaspora in multiple countries since 2017.

Cases involving widespread distribution of common content are, in some sense, an updated form of propaganda. Disinformation or biased stories adopt an air of local authenticity. Attacking countries do not need to invest as much effort into the creation of generic content as they would for country-specific campaigns.

State-Backed Disinformation on the Domestic Front

Even in democracies, governments sometimes employ media consultancies to justify their policies and damage opposition politicians. In Mexico, for example, branches of the government have paid fake media outlets to amplify stories in favor of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). During the presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto from 2012-2018, pro-PRI Twitter accounts were so common that they came to be dubbed “Peñabots.”

While foreign influence efforts have been dominated by six countries, particularly Russia and Iran, we found 20 domestic influence efforts spread across 18 countries going back to 2011. In almost all cases, domestic interference has sought to suppress political dissent. Countries such as Vietnam were overt about this goal, with the creation of a cyber military unit called Task Force 47 operating under the Vietnam People’s Army that sought to discredit opposition narratives. Alternatively, government officials in Malta directed social media trolling and hate speech via secret Facebook groups.

Our inclusion criteria required influence campaigns to be directly connected to a government or ruling party. Although political parties in some democracies engage in social media manipulation, these parties are not necessarily representative of the state. For instance, in India, both Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and the Indian National Congress have long made use of influence operations. Similarly, disinformation originating with firms like Cambridge Analytica does not constitute an influence operation in our study unless explicitly linked with governments.

What’s Next?

Online influence efforts are becoming an increasingly widespread tool for both domestic politics and foreign interference. The commercialization of these campaigns could make them easier to access and, in some cases, harder to identify. But the problem of state-back influence efforts is not yet pervasive.

In fact, we found two positive trends in our report. First, only Russia initiated new influence efforts in 2019, and second, Russia initiated only three new efforts in 2019, compared to eight in 2018. This is promising given the widespread capacity for executing influence efforts, and the number of countries who would like to shape US politics, and suggests something is holding countries back from using fake online activity to interfere in their rivals’ politics.

But a global norm needs to be reinforced. At the moment, there is little international collaboration on monitoring social media platforms and no multilateral push to create strong prohibitions on cross-border influence campaigns. And with the US presidential election less than two months away, the threat of foreign interference is being brought squarely to the fore.

Jacob N. Shapiro is professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, Diego Martin is a PhD Student in economics at Purdue University, and Julia Ilhardt is a senior in the School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.

Links der Woche, rechts der Welt 14/20

Links der Woche, rechts der Welt 14/20

Das Virus hat keinen Mythos

Schon die Pest war mehr als eine ansteckende Krankheit, wie Thomas Assheuer in der ZEIT feststellt. Auch das Corona-Virus wird von manchen als gerechte Geißel der Moderne und als deren Kur betrachtet. Das nämlich sei leichter, als sich in der Weltrisikogesellschaft um Haltung und Handlung zu bemühen. (29.03.20)

Der Zweck ist klar, die Mittel dunkel

„Von der Natürlichkeit des Zwecks darf nicht auf die Natürlichkeit der Mittel geschlossen werden“, schreibt Jonas Heller bei Telepolis in einem rechtsphilosophischen Aufsatz über die staatlich verordneten Infektionsschutzmaßnahmen, die nicht zum klassischen Ausnahmezustand passen und sich nicht von ihrem Zweck lösen dürfen. (01.04.20)


Langsam schlägt sich der Stillstand des Verlagswesens im Feuilleton nieder: Kaum noch Rezensionen! Sebastian Ostritsch hat zum Hegel-Jahr noch eine Hegel-Biographie vorgelegt, die sich, glauben wir der FR, vor allem seinem dialektischen Denken widmet. +++ Auch die FAZ bespricht Zhao Tingyangs Abrechnung mit dem westlichen Universalismus und auch hier stößt die Idee einer „Tianxia“ nach antikem Vorbild auf Skepsis.

Bild und Ton

Rettung für Bingewatcher: Die SZ empfiehlt die dritte Staffel der technikphilosophischen Sci-Fi-Thriller-Serie „Westworld“.

Der Kollege Bernhard Horwatitsch nutzt das Home Office, um aus seiner Bude heraus Texte vorzulesen, darunter auch einige aus dem Lichtwolf. Über die in diesen Tagen unentbehrliche Fähigkeit zur Improvisation unterhalten sich Michael Rüsenberg und Jürgen Wiebicke im Philosophischen Radio des WDR 5. Unter den Hohenzollern hätte es nicht solche Fallzahlen gegeben! Im DLF kommt heute die Lange Nacht über Preußen im Rheinland, morgen früh geht es bei Essay und Diskurs um Brasiliens Kulturpolitik unter Bolsonaro. und der allgemeine Stillstand ist eines der Themen bei Sein und Streit.

(Photo: alexstrachan, pixabay.com, CC0)

Die Unordnung der Dinge

Auch der studentische Arbeitsmarkt ist krisenbedingt zusammengebrochen, wie der Tagesspiegel an einigen Beispielen verdeutlicht. +++ Judith Schalansky denkt in der SZ über die traurige Ironie nach, dass Covid-19 vermutlich vom Schuppentier auf den Menschen übergesprungen ist, der es bis an den Rand der Ausrottung getrieben hat. +++ Alexander Unzicker schätzt alternative Medien wie KenFM, macht aber bei Telepolis seinem Ärger über deren wirre und gefährliche Ansichten zur Pandemie Luft. +++ „Auf makabere Weise bestätigt Corona alle Vorurteile der autoritären Rechten“, schreibt Philipp Hübl in der ZEIT, wo er sich mit dem faschistischen Ekel beschäftigt. +++ Otfried Höffe stellt in der NZZ sieben Thesen zum demokratieschonenden Umgang mit der Pandemie auf. +++ Extreme Ungleichheit macht Kooperation unmöglich, wie sich in einem spieltheoretischen Experiment zeigt, über das Spektrum berichtet. +++ Daniela Dröscher denkt in der ZEIT über Empathie in der Krise nach. +++ Ohne Optimismus geht es nicht: Die SZ hat sich bei einigen Fachleuten umgehört, wie die Menschen durch die Corona-Krise kommen.

Trotz Philosophie

Als allgemeine Linkempfehlung für dürftige Tage: Im spendenfinanzierten Portal Aeon gibt es jede Woche schöne Essays (manche mit Vorlesefunktion!) aus und über Philosophie und andere Gebiete. +++ Auch Alain Finkielkraut hat „Die Pest“ von Camus wieder gelesen und kritisiert Agamben und Sloterdijk scharf für ihre Skepsis gegenüber den politischen Maßnahmen zum Infektionsschutz, wie in der FAZ zu lesen ist. +++ In der Glotze kam wieder „Der Medicus“ und die zahlreichen Erwähnungen des Aristoteles darin haben die FR ganz nervös gemacht. +++ Nach wie vor lieferbar als Heft und E-Book: Der produktionsbedingt coronafreie Lichtwolf Nr. 69 zum Thema „Über“.