„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.

Russian disinformation: The network of fake foreign media

Russian disinformation: The network of fake foreign media

Wir haben diesen Artikel auch auf Deutsch veröffentlicht.

It is not often that a German news site publishes a report which then hits Russia like a bomb. „Abendlich Hamburg“ recently succeeded in doing so with an alleged investigative article about Alexei Nawalny. The Russian opposition politician is currently still recovering in Germany after being poisoned with the nerve poison „Novichok“. „Abendlich“ author Matthias Fritz claims to have found out that the West is now relying on his wife Julia instead of Alexei Nawalny. After returning to Russia, she wants to run for the Russian State Duma. So the article says.

Dozens of well-known Russian sites, including the online newspaper „Gazeta.ru“ and the tabloid „Komsomolskaya Pravda“, picked up the story from November. A journalistic success for „Abendlich Hamburg“, one might think. Instead, the site disappeared from the web.

In the meantime it has become clear that something is wrong with the allegedly Hamburg-based portal: the language of the articles sounds like a poor translation from Russian, most of the articles are copies from Russian propaganda channels. The official registration data leads to a false address in Gotha in Thuringia. The matter seems clear: Something very odd is going on. One seems to be confronted with an example of Russian disinformation. But the matter is somewhat more complicated, more comprehensive. A investigation by netzpolitik.org and WELT now makes this clear.

A joint analysis of the website uncovered clues about the people behind it, identified recurring patterns, and, finally, found more such websites. This brings to light a whole network of supposed news portals that give themselves serious-sounding names, but whose supposed journalists do not even exist. In reality, they are all puffed up fake news slingshots.

On these platforms, the Russian-speaking world backers place disinformation. Theses fake ‚foreign media‘ are designed to strengthen the credibility of the news when quoted within Russia. A second method has also been established: the masterminds also abuse reputabled European media to spread their conspiracy myths. In at least one case they have planted lies directly on a renowned French news site.

Behind all this is a controlling hand whose tracks lead to the separatist areas in eastern Ukraine and to a Russian-language propaganda channel with links to Russian intelligence services. It is one of the very rare examples of how Russian disinformation works. At the same time, one can see the sometimes crude means by which the information warfare against enemies at home and abroad is waged today.

A failed cover-up

The website of
The website of „Abendlich Hamburg“ before it was shut down. – Alle Rechte vorbehalten Screenshot WELT

Hardly anyone in Germany has heard of the website „Abendlich Hamburg“. It is the starting point of this investigation. The people behind the site have done a lot to remain unrecognised. To disguise who runs the portal, they used the service Cloudflare, which channels visitors through its own servers, so called proxies. By means of proxies the actual location of the originating servers is obscured.

However, Cloudflare has a serious weakness when it comes to remaining truly anonymous. This has to do with the Domain Name System (DNS), the phone book of the Internet. A DNS server stores the information of which Internet domain name should lead to which Internet address (Internet Protocol Address). Cloudflare operates thousands of such DNS servers. The service assigns two random DNS servers to new customers, which then remain identical for the websites of a user account.

Cloudflare has named the DNS servers, registered for the domain of „Abendlich Hamburg“, „Candy“ and „Zeus“. netzpolitik.org and WELT have searched for further domains which use this combination of „Candy“ and „Zeus“. This allowed conclusions to be drawn as to which websites could have the same operator.

Fake news portals in several European countries

The network:
The network: „24-7 News“ as an international portal, „Britisherald“ and „The Capital News“ in the UK, „La tarde republicana“ in Spain, „Courrier Parisien“ in France, „Abendlich Hamburg“ in Germany, „Szeged Hírek“ in Hungary, „Pravdorub“ in Moldova, „Infoprof“ in Russia. There are close ties to „News Front“ in Crimea. – Alle Rechte vorbehalten netzpolitik.org

The investigation leads to news portals allegedly from Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain, France, Hungary, Moldova and Russia. Articles in several languages also appeared on an international site. Their contents as well as technical features reveal a pattern that is familiar. „Abendlich Hamburg“ is apparently not alone. Dissimulating clones have been distributed, more or less obscured, to many countries.

netzpolitik.org and WELT have downloaded and examined the entire archives of several websites from this network. The evaluation shows how systematically the portals spread disinformation. It also uncovers the pretext of trustworthiness they establish. The publications are designed to help ensure that piecemeal disinformation is not noticed as such but perceived as true.

For years, the operators have been filling these websites with articles from other news portals. Often the operators also copied articles from reputable media such as the British „Guardian“ or the television channel „Euronews“. Occasionally, however, articles appear which are clearly out of the ordinary. In Spanish, one portal reported on alleged hatred spread by US media after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula. The text ends with a threat: „Provocations against Russia will lead to a harsh military response from Moscow, which will be a real disaster for the Ukraine“. An alleged coup d’état by Ukrainian nationalists could „blow up the world“. Sometimes translations of the same articles appeared on various „European“ news portals of the network.

The dissemination mechanism

The people behind this did not make much of an effort: most of the pages are sloppily designed. There is no imprint and the layout looks unprofessional. In the case of two news portals, intended to appear independent of each other and located in different countries, a technical flaw disclosed information about the web server behind them. This shows the allegedly independent sites are apparently operated through the same user account with the identifier „u0453810“.

The clumsy interfaces suggest that the pages are not designed for real readers in their respective countries. But even if they may be perplexing at first glance, they do not fail to have an effect: the individual pages are in fact the gears of a large transmission mechanism that has actually begun to move as evidenced by the following examples.

The opposition politician Alexei Nawalny is repeatedly the target of attacks from within this network. This was the case in an interview published by „The Capital News“ in October this year. In it, the US American Greg Butterfield sows doubt that the Kremlin could be behind Nawalny’s poisoning. The interviewee also speculates about alleged connections of Nawalny to the CIA — a common narrative used by Russian state media to discredit opposition politicians.

Greg Butterfield during a visit to the separatist controlled city of Luhansk

The alleged politician Greg Butterfield really does exist, but he is far from being the „famous American member of the opposition“ that „The Capital News“ portrays him to be. Butterfield, who did not respond to an inquiry about this investigation, is active in a niche Marxist-Leninist party in the United States and visited the Russian-occupied Donbass. It is possible that for the propaganda network, the American was merely a so-called useful idiot, a pawn used like a prompter to direct the narrative.

The interview Butterfield gave to „The Capital News“ made waves. The service „Inosmi“, which belongs to the state-owned Russian news holding „Rossija Sewodnja“, picked it up and translated the text into Russian. The German branch of the Kremlin-financed agency „Sputnik“ reported on it. Butterfield’s statements in ‚translation‘ are now more pointed. And Sputnik sold the speculations as facts.

This case demonstrates that the news portals of this network are surprisingly small. They only become effective when other media adopt their publications and give them credibility and attention, if necessary, with the aid of the state.

„Abendlich Hamburg“ repeated the gambit — apparently with success. The translation portal „Inosmi“ again served as the first propagator. In the news search of the Russian search engine Yandex, there are now approximately 40 articles from various Russian-language websites that refer to the Nawalny story of „Abendlich Hamburg“. In addition, there are articles and links in social networks that have been clicked and read thousands of times.

„Inosmi“ is intended to give Russians a view of their country from outside. The portal professionally translates primarily press from well known media houses, but also smaller blogs. When asked why it was promoting this unknown Hamburg portal of all places, it did not reply.

The traces lead to areas controlled by Moscow

This distribution mechanism is only the most obvious pointer to Russia. Technical details also reinforce the suspicion that „Abendlich Hamburg“ and the other portals in the network are jointly controlled from the Russian-speaking countries. The majority of the servers are located at the hosting provider REG.ru in Moscow. An analysis of the network also reveals numerous indications of the involvement of well-known pro-Kremlin actors.

Information registered by the DENIC, the German DNS registry, shows that the operator(s) of the sites are deliberately falsifying information to conceal the origin and extent of the network. The central registry administers all website names ending in the country code „.de“. In the case of „Abendlich Hamburg“ they lead to eight different addresses in the center of the Thuringian city of Gotha, as originally reported by the German weekly „Zeit“. The names of the responsible, however, cannot be found in the registration data.

They were not always so careful. Registration data for other domains, which can be clearly assigned to the network, contain a real name: Maxim G., whose family name is known to the authors. According to investigations by netzpolitik.org and WELT, Maxim is a 22-year-old from the East Ukrainian city of Luhansk, which is controlled by separatists. He also controls registered e-mail addresses. Several registrations even included a cell phone number linked to an account with the messenger service Telegram. The accompanying profile picture shows the photo of a young man.

Telegram profile picture of Maxim G.
Telegram profile picture of Maxim G. – Alle Rechte vorbehalten Maxim G. via Telegram

And so, one calls Maxim G. On the other end a friendly young voice in Russian answers. If you ask him about „Abendlich Hamburg“ and the other websites, he surprisingly doesn’t beat about the bush, but admits his involvement. He was contacted via Telegram, he says, but he doesn’t know by whom. The idea was to set up pages that looked like news portals. He had done this rather quickly and sloppily „for a few kopecks“ — he claims to have received 11 euros per site. Maxim G. says that at the beginning there were ten websites — seven remain as of this publication.

He had heard that there was something going on with „Abendlich Hamburg“. He became scared and disabled the site. „The hosting is registered to me, but I have nothing to do with the content,“ he says. „I am simply a freelancer. I have no responsibility otherwise.“ But it is obviously not that simple, as the investigation shows.

A well-known Russian propaganda channel

On the web Maxim G. offers his services as a developer. The services in his portfolio also include the development of bots, i.e. automatically working computer programs. On his profile at the developer platform Github, he uploaded the source code for software, which shows that he has been working on programs that automatically collect and distribute content. According to the description, he also developed „Tools for working with News Front“ and a News Front extension for the internet browser Chrome.

News Front is anything but an ordinary news site. The origin of the portal goes back to the fall of the pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych and the Crimean annexation in the spring of 2014. In the beginning, articles about the war in the Donbass dominated the site. In the meantime, News Front has grown into a multilingual media company based in Crimea, which disseminates the Russian world view in other languages, including German.

According to a former employee, a large part of the budget comes from the Russian secret service, as reported by „Zeit“ in 2017. The US government’s Global Engagement Center (GEC) called the site a „disinformation and propaganda medium“ in an analysis published in August. No secret is made of its own inclinations: „We, the News Front news agency, are voluntary fighters in the information war,“ the website states.

What does Maxim G. have to say about this?

That he had developed the extension software for the portal was „a coincidence“, explains G. when asked. A News Front employee he knows asked him to write it. He had not received any compensation for it.

Shortly after this phone call, the software repository disappeared from his publicly viewable profile on Github.

In addition to the programs that Maxim G. wrote, there is a further indicator that the disinformation network that has now been uncovered has close ties to News Front.

Republic of Moldova in focus

The trail leads into the Republic of Moldova. There, following the break-up of the Soviet Union, the Transnistrian region on the eastern edge of the Republic declared itself independent. Transnistria is under Russian influence and Russian troops are still stationed there today. Russia’s strategic interest is therefore significant. This may explain why the Republic is home to the most sophisticated sites of the network.

The Russian-language site „Pravdorub“ from Moldova, for example, seems much more sophisticated than „Abendlich Hamburg“ or „The Capital News“. „Candy“ and „Zeus“ have also been assigned as its DNS servers — the same DNS servers that „Abendlich Hamburg“ used. The newly elected president Maia Sandu, who distances herself from Russia, is sharply attacked at „Pravdorub“.

Our investigation also leads via a digression to the portal „Moldova’s Echo“. In December 2019, the Moldovan „Institutul de Politici Publice“ discovered an associated Facebook group had originally been founded as a News Front group.

A few weeks before the presidential elections in the Ukraine in the spring of 2019, „Moldova’s Echo“ published a Russian-language report accusing incumbent Petro Poroshenko of corruption. Days later, the same article appeared in English on channels operated by News Front. Even diagrams, previously in Cyrillic script, were translated.

This scheme fits: The copying of articles from one website to another is common to the disinformation network around „Abendlich Hamburg“. In part, the news portals look like the extended arm of News Front. For example, an English-language article about the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 in the Ukraine appeared on the „Britisherald“ in June 2019. It is meant to cast doubt on the work of Western investigators. On the same day, „La tarde republicana“ also published a Spanish version of the text. The original article had been published five days earlier on a sister website of News Front. It seems that someone subsequently scattered it within the network.

In October of the same year, „La tarde republicana“ and „The Capital News“ took another article on the same subject from a News Front website, which even included a reference to the source. An analysis of the source code also revealed that „La tarde republicana“ included graphics that were loaded directly from the News Front server when visitors accessed an article.

It is becoming increasingly clear that it is not just a few voices, but a choir.

A detailed catalogue of questions about the disinformation network, which netzpolitik.org and WELT sent to News Front, actually obtained a reply. The accusations, however, were dismissed as „fantasy“.

The Russian Federation Embassy in Berlin also disavows any involvement. With regard to the disinformation of „Abendlich Hamburg“ and „24-7news.eu“ about Alexej Nawalny, the embassy responded it does not comment on „unofficial media coverage“.

Even established Western news sites are manipulated

News Front has had years of experience with this strategy of spreading its own propaganda contributions as widely as possible. This investigation shows that the organisation not only uses its own channels for this purpose. In order to spread disinformation, the portal also misuses websites of renown.

On April 4, 2017, 87 people died in a chemical weapons attack in the small Syrian town of Khan Sheikhun. The West blamed the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but the dictator denied responsibility, and Putin also defended him.

A few days after this incident, someone calling herself Kate Matberg published a first article on the website of „Mediapart“. The French portal is known for its investigative journalism. Matberg listed allegations to underline that film footage of Khan Sheikhun was fake and that the attack may not have taken place at all. But Matberg was not a journalist of „Mediapart“ at all.

The article appeared in „Le Club“, a section of the website where readers post articles written by themselves. To notice this distinction, one would have to understand French. Matberg’s texts, however, appeared in English. To date she has published 115 articles in the blog.

Kate Matberg's blog on the French news website
Kate Matberg’s blog on the French news website „Mediapart“ – Alle Rechte vorbehalten Screenshot via Mediapart

One article is about a hacker attack on the private e-mail account of a US diplomat who, according to a report by the news magazine „Foreign Policy“, was responsible for the work of the US secret services in Russia. Matberg linked to a website where anyone could download the contents of the email account. News Front copied the post on its own portal, with a note that was probably intended to give it additional credibility: This article „first appeared on Mediapart“.

According to an investigation by netzpolitik.org and WELT, the author Kate Matberg herself was just an invention of News Front. Almost one in five of her articles contained clear references to News Front or her sister websites, again graphics had been integrated directly from servers in Moscow.

When asked, „Mediaparts“ editor-in-chief Edwy Plenel said that they knew nothing about all this. On Sunday, he had all posts in the account deleted and ordered an investigation of the user account. „The subscription was in the name of a person responsible for the ‚News Front‘ website,“ said Plenel. He did not want to comment further on this — for data protection reasons.

The reader’s blog on the „Mediapart“ website is not an isolated case, nor is Kate Matberg the only pseudonym under which News Front distributed its articles on the web. Some of the same texts appeared under the moniker Anastasia Frank on the Cypriot news website „The Duran“.

„We never were aware of this,“ Alexander Christoforou, one of the managers of the site, writes by e-mail. Anyone could post articles on „The Duran“. The website is considered to be Russia-friendly and has already attracted the attention of fact-checkers in the past because of disinformation. After our enquiry all 42 articles by Anastasia Frank were deleted.

Such articles, allegedly from Matberg or Frank, also appeared in the network to which „Abendlich Hamburg“ belonged.

Dual strategy of authoritarian states“.

According to Konstantin Kuhle, spokesman for domestic policy of the FDP parliamentary group in the Bundestag, „Abendlich Hamburg“ shows „in an exemplary way how targeted disinformation works“. Yet this case is relatively transparent. „The fact that comparable portals are recognisable in other states and in other languages illustrates how big the problem is“, said the member of Parliment.

In view of these findings, Kuhle assumes that authoritarian states are pursuing a dual strategy: On the one hand, disinformation campaigns are used to exert a targeted influence on decision-making processes in democratic states. On the other hand, the states concerned try to use the open media landscape in Germany to influence opposition members in their own states.

„The response of European states must be a joint action against such campaigns. In doing so, states like Germany must also think about a more active use and expansion of their own communication channels,“ Kuhle said to netzpolitik.org and WELT.

Regarding this investigation, Tiemo Wölken, Member of the European Parliament for the SPD, said: „Targeted disinformation campaigns such as these are often part of hybrid operations from third countries.“ The dissemination of false information is a targeted attempt to influence public discourse in Europe in order to capitalise on it.

„Many false reports in connection with COVID-19 can be traced back to campaigns from Russia and China, for example“, said Wölken. Recognising this is an important first step: „It is like the story of the Wizard of Oz, in which it turns out that the powerful, impressive wizard is just an elderly man operating a machine hidden behind a curtain.

„Abendlich Hamburg“ is down. The disinformation, however, lives on.

This investigation was done in cooperation with WELT which also published this article.

Unmasked: Covid-19 and the Cultural Dimensions of the Debate on Mandatory Face Masks

Unmasked: Covid-19 and the Cultural Dimensions of the Debate on Mandatory Face Masks

Can masks help to stop the spread of the coro­na­virus? Other than in China, Japan, or Hong Kong, this ques­tion is curr­ently being debated in a most contro­ver­sial manner in Germany and other Western coun­tries. Admit­tedly, a group of young jour­na­lists and other cele­bri­ties initiated the #maskeauf campaign, calling on the public to wear masks outside the home. The German city of Jena obliges its citi­zens to wear masks in public, and Austria decided to imple­ment similar measures for the time after the lifting of the lock­down. Yet these measures remain contro­ver­sial – far more contro­ver­sial than other regu­la­tions related to social distan­cing.

Advo­cates of masks argue that droplet infec­tions could be prevented or at any rate decreased if ever­yone wore masks in public. Because of their current scar­city in Western coun­tries, these campaigns do not refer to medical masks. Instead, readers are exhorted to sew their own masks from washable cotton fabric.

Oppon­ents, by contrast, make a number of claims. Not only do they narrow down the debate to medical masks, sugges­ting that an obli­ga­tion of wearing them would be tanta­mount to redu­cing this precious good even further, thus under­mi­ning soli­da­rity. Others rejec­ting masks for medical reasons claim that they would only help protect indi­vi­duals other than those who wear them (assuming that only the infected should use masks) – an argu­ment that would be imme­dia­tely inva­li­dated if ever­yone resorted to masks. Some assert that masks would encou­rage tenden­cies of hoar­ding due to the anony­mity conveyed by them. At times, however, oppon­ents also claim quite unabas­hedly that other than in Asia, the prescrip­tive wearing of masks could simply not be intro­duced in Europe for cultural reasons.

The Mask as the Other

This essen­tia­list argu­ment – a mask as unsui­table for European socie­ties – is inst­ruc­tive. Its reading of face coverings reveals a mecha­nism of Othe­ring charac­te­ri­zing recent debates on forms of veiling in Islam. As suggested by a look into travel writing on Western Asia and North Africa and portrait photo­graphy from this region, however, this discourse draws on a much longer tradi­tion. Nineteenth-century Western travel­lers like Helmuth von Moltke or Mark Twain compared women in full-body veils to ghosts or dead bodies. Early studio photo­graphs in the context of emer­ging tourism in the region showing fully veiled human figures convey a similar image.

Alge­rien, 19. Jh.; Quelle: sarrazins.fr

As travel­lers and photo­graphers seem to have agreed, veiling dive­sted the indi­vi­dual of the indi­vi­dual, and more than that, of freedom itself – a focus very diffe­rent from that of Lady Mary Wortley Montague, who, travel­ling at the begin­ning of the eigh­te­enth century, had claimed, equally gene­ra­li­zing, that women used the anony­mity bestowed by veiling for expan­ding their sexual agency. Nineteenth-century travel­lers, by contrast, embraced a nega­tive view of the veil – not just because they read into it a lack of life and liberty. According to Meyda Yeğe­noğlu, it irri­tated them for yet other reasons. On the one hand, it seemed to enable the wearer to conceal her true nature. On the other hand, it allowed her to see without being seen, thus inves­ting her with power.

European Masks: Excep­tio­na­lity and Status

To some extent, this disap­proval of forms of face covering is puzzling. Face covering, after all, was not an unfa­mi­liar pheno­menon in European cultural history. During masquerades and carni­vals, it allowed men and women to tempora­rily shed moral cons­traints. In a medical context, it protected its wearer from contrac­ting illnesses, last but not least by means of the fragrant herbs hid in its beak. In a mili­tary context, facial veiling was common at an even earlier stage. A knight’s armour often covered the face in its enti­rety except for a narrow visor. Fencing masks bestowed full-face coverage. In early modern times, the vizard protected the pale comple­xion befit­ting upper-class women: a mask, often made of black fabric, with openings only for the eyes kept in place by a mouth­piece. During the nine­teenth century, women wore a veil, albeit a trans­pa­rent one, on their day of marriage, in church, during burials, and in mour­ning. From the late eigh­te­enth century onwards, masks faci­li­tated swim­ming and diving. A century later, they provided protec­tion from poison gas.

Admit­tedly, these forms of face coverage shared two aspects: they were worn but tempora­rily and/or only by upper-class men and women, thus leaving the majo­rity of society unveiled. Masks, or so Mikhail Bakhtin argues, were asso­ciated with the tran­sitory, with meta­mor­phoses, with the infrin­ge­ment of natural bounda­ries. As long as they remained temporary or a prero­ga­tive of social elites, forms of facial covering, there­fore, were accep­table well into the nine­teenth century and beyond in Europe.

Visi­bi­lity, Indi­vi­dua­lity, and the Modern State

Why was large-scale use of facial covering so suspect to nineteenth-century European obser­vers, then? Visi­bi­lity, or so scho­lars of cultural studies since Foucault have empha­sized, was a core aspect of the modern state. While the idea of the panop­ticon influ­enced the archi­tec­ture of facto­ries, prisons, and other estab­lish­ments mainly in theory, the deve­lop­ment of crimi­no­lo­gical photo­graphy, aided by the inven­tions of Bertillon, and the pass­port, accom­pa­nied by a photo­graph from the 1910s onward, made a decisive contri­bu­tion in this direc­tion. Far more recent are the intro­duc­tion of the prohi­bi­tion of disguise (as laid down, for instance, in German law), and CCTV. Finally, the tech­no­logy of facial reco­gni­tion offers a maximum degree of visi­bi­lity in both physical and virtual space.

At the same time, the idea of the indi­vi­dual turned into the very foun­da­tion of self-declaredly liberal and secular socie­ties. This indi­vi­dual was to act auto­no­mously, only to be restricted in its liberty where this liberty infringed upon that of others. In prac­tice, this indi­vi­dual was male, middle-class, white. Other groups within society saw far more limits imposed upon their agency. The presence of these limits, however, did not taint the idea of indi­vi­dual freedom as the core ideal of modern socie­ties. Apart from the liberty of belief, opinion, and congre­ga­tion, the modern indi­vi­dual, again on the level of law, enjoyed liberty in choice of dress as long as it was not read as a reli­gious signi­fier. Dress codes, at least in terms of sump­tuary laws, were a thing of the past, and law would only return to regu­la­ting apparel under Nazi rule.

Fang Maske, Louvre; Quelle: wikimedia.org

Facial covering, on the other hand, came to be asso­ciated more and more with the cultural Other since the nine­teenth century. In this context, masks from Africa, Asia, and the Pacific became objects of fasci­na­tion. They were inter­preted as symbo­li­zing reli­gious rituals and social orders not based on the idea of the indi­vi­dual but of life courses struc­tured by rites of passage. Masks became coveted objects in European collec­tions. They inspired modern pain­ting, sculp­ture, and photo­graphy. In European and American daily life, however, facial covering became more and more absent. Even head­gear, once a sign of respec­ta­bi­lity, was on the wane. In Western socie­ties, showing one’s face became tanta­mount to commu­ni­ca­ting authen­ti­city and honesty.

The Apotheosis of Western Public Health

At the same time, colo­nia­lism helped spread the idea of Western hygiene as supe­rior. It found expres­sion in urba­ni­za­tion where the moder­ni­za­tion of Paris initiated by Hauss­mann, with its sewers, street lights, visual axes, and boule­vards became a model for cities around the world, inclu­ding non-European ones. It seeped into medi­cine whose Western notions did not comple­tely replace other forms of know­ledge but came to domi­nate academia none­theless. Even in food hygiene and chemi­stry, Western stan­dards took the lead. Domestic science became a central part of the curri­culum among Western educa­tional actors in impe­rial contexts. These and other parties were also dedi­cated to imple­men­ting Western stan­dards with regards to bodily clean­li­ness. In prac­tice, these concepts never fully replaced other notions, not just because colo­nial powers oversaw their imple­men­ta­tion only half-heartedly due to racism, economic reasons, and sheer lack of power. Instead, these cultural encoun­ters gave rise to the emer­gence of hybrid or pidgin know­ledge. From a Western perspec­tive, however, one’s own notions of hygiene appeared supe­rior none­theless.

What’s in a Mask?

Apart from the fact that Western governments hardly took precau­tions for the case of an epidemic, it is these two reasons – the belief in the supe­rio­rity of one’s own notions of public health and the rejec­tion of facial covering -, that obst­ruct the accep­tance of masks in the present situa­tion, although medical experts in Germany and else­where come to stress more and more the advan­tage of masks, and masks even turn into a bone of conten­tion between Western states. The argu­ment against the wearing of masks, or so a glance into nineteenth-century trave­lo­gues suggests, is a deeply orien­ta­list one. While there is little doubt that the spread of the virus could be slowed down if ever­yone wore a mask in public, cultural precon­cep­tions with a long histo­rical tradi­tion impede the imple­men­ta­tion of this prag­matic solu­tion. The fear of losing face is too para­mount. Even campaigns for the use of masks, there­fore, cham­pion indi­vi­dua­lity, in all likeli­hood hardly just because of scar­city, in stres­sing the crea­tive poten­tial of sewing one’s own mask. Oscar Wilde is perfectly right in clai­ming that a mask is more telling than a face.