On the anniversary of her arrest in Canada, Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of the Chinese telecom giant Huawei, issued an open letter describing how she experienced fear, pain, disappointment, helplessness, torment and acceptance of the unknown.
She wrote at length about the support she received from her colleagues, about friendly people at a courthouse in Vancouver and about "numerous" Chinese online users who expressed their trust.
Her letter, posted Monday, was not well received on the Chinese internet, where Meng is known - in a term meant to be endearing - as "princess" because she is a daughter of Huawei's founder, Ren Zhengfei. On the Twitter-like social media platform Weibo, many users posted the numbers 985, 996, 251 and 404 in the comment section below her letter.
They were slyly referring to a former Huawei employee who graduated from one of the country's 985 top universities, worked from 9am to 9pm six days a week and was jailed for 251 days after he demanded severance pay when his contract was not renewed.
His story went viral in China, generating angry responses online. That resulted in 404 error messages as articles and comments were deleted, a sign of China's censors at work.
The former employee, Li Hongyuan, was eventually released from jail with no charges and received $15,000 in government compensation last week. He shared his story online last week and that's when the hit to Huawei's reputation began.
"One enjoyed a sunny Canadian mansion while the other enjoyed the cold and damp detention cell in Shenzhen," Jiang Feng, a psychologist, commented on the Quora-like question-and-answer site Zhihu. Meng has been under house arrest in a six-bedroom home, awaiting potential extradition to the United States on charges that she conspired to defraud banks about Huawei's relationship with an Iranian company.
The anger directed toward Meng reflected an uneasy moment for both Huawei and China's middle-class professionals. In the past year, Huawei had been fending off claims by the US government that it is secretive and unreliable and that it spies for Beijing, an allegation the company has repeatedly denied.
In China, however, Huawei has been considered the crown jewel of the country's tech industry and has enjoyed tremendous goodwill. Many Chinese proudly abandoned their iPhones for Huawei phones. But the backlash to the jailing of a longtime employee after a labor dispute has made it clear that people in China are starting to sour on the company.
The anger on social media was also indicative of new insecurity among members of China's middle class, who have never experienced an economic downturn and have always thought they had more protections than lower-paid migrant workers. People said they could see themselves in Li.
"Many middle-class Chinese used to believe that if they went to good schools, worked hard and cared little about the current affairs they would be able to realize their Chinese dreams," a blogger wrote on Weibo. "Now their dreams are in tatters."
Huawei declined to comment on the public response.Li, a Huawei employee for 12 years, negotiated a $48,000 severance package in March 2018, according to interviews he gave to Chinese media outlets. But he did not get an end-of-the-year bonus that he said had been promised to him. He sued Huawei in November last year.
A month later, he was detained in Shenzhen and accused of leaking commercial secrets. He was officially arrested in January on an extortion accusation. But he was released in August with no charges. He did not respond to interview requests.Huawei insisted in a statement that it had done nothing wrong and challenged Li to prove that he had been treated unfairly.
"Huawei has the right, and in fact a duty, to report the facts of any suspected illegal conduct to authorities. We respect the decisions made by the authorities," the statement said. "If Li Hongyuan believes that he has suffered damages or that his rights have been infringed, we support his right to seek satisfaction through legal means, up to and including lawsuit against Huawei."
Online commentators called the statement "arrogant" and "cold blooded." "The elephant stepped on you, but you can step back on it," one popular WeChat article said. "What a response of justice!"
Jiang Jingjing, a blogger, criticized Huawei for trampling on its employees' rights with its tough performance evaluation system and legal firepower. "Once a company becomes a cold, dehumanized grinding machine, what's the point for it to exist?" he wrote.
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