Huawei Technologies Co. is bidding to convince citizens in Australia, one of America’s closest allies, that its telecom gear is safe—a grass-roots fight against the government’s decision to exclude the Chinese company from its 5G build-out.
Australia was one of the first countries to block Huawei components from new 5G networks, superfast wireless technology that carriers are currently rolling out around the world. The U.S. and Australia allege Huawei gear poses a national security threat because, they say, Beijing can compel Huawei to use it to spy on or disrupt networks—a charge Huawei denies.
To change that view, Huawei is taking its case directly to the people with town-hall meetings around the country. It is going for glitz, offering waterfront views, wine and canapes to entice guests.
The recent resignation of Huawei’s local chairman and another independent director, however, underscores its public relations challenge.
Fissures are growing between the U.S. and allies over Huawei, the world’s biggest maker of telecommunications equipment and the No. 2 cellphone vendor behind Samsung Electronics Co. The company scored a major victory last month when the U.K. government decided to defy the Trump administration and allow Huawei gear in noncore 5G network components.
The U.K. and Australia are both members of the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing network with the U.S., Canada and New Zealand, making their telecoms infrastructure particularly important for Washington. The Trump administration condemned the U.K.’s decision, and U.S. lawmakers have pushed forcefully for a reversal.
The U.S. in recent weeks has sharply raised the stakes for Huawei, adding new charges to an indictment of the company and considering tighter restrictions on U.S. companies that wish to sell it technology.
Huawei hopes winning over the public in Australia—and New Zealand, where Huawei officials hope to overturn a similar ban—could soften up other jurisdictions.
The first “Let’s Talk Huawei” event is set for next week in Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, a grand, art-deco inspired building in the historic Rocks district with views over the harbor and iconic Sydney Opera House.
The company says it plans to hold four such events in Australian state capitals, including Canberra and Melbourne, then expand the initiative to smaller cities. Huawei said it hopes “to give regional Aussies the chance to find out for themselves the truth about the company.”
It has enlisted Andy Purdy, the company’s Washington, D.C.-based head of cybersecurity in the U.S.—and a top cybersecurity official in the George W. Bush administration—to help lead the first of the town halls. It has also recruited Nick Xenophon, a well-known former Australian lawmaker, to speak at the events. Mr. Xenophon, whose law firm Huawei has hired to defend it against reputational attacks, left federal politics in 2017, but the centrist party he formed is still a political force.
Also scheduled: representatives from Huawei-sponsored programs, including students from Seeds for the Future—a month-long work and study program in China for engineering and technology students. It plans to showcase its sponsorship of the Canberra Raiders—a popular professional rugby league team—to underscore its role as a good corporate citizen.
The marketing push has met with a cool reception in Canberra. Andrew Hastie, the head of the country’s powerful intelligence and security committee, called on Mr. Xenophon to register as a foreign lobbyist.
Mr. Xenophon said that as a privately held company, Huawei isn’t covered by foreign-influence rules that would require registration. He said his job is to defend Huawei’s “reputation from unwarranted smears and lies—and there have been many of those emanating from Australia over the past year.”
In October, Huawei threatened legal action in a letter to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, over a paper about the Chinese government’s data-gathering techniques, according to a copy of the letter viewed by The Wall Street Journal. The report said Huawei gear contains technology that can conduct surveillance on behalf of Beijing. In its letter, Huawei denied that. ASPI says it stands by its research.
Australia was once a key Western market for Huawei, but it has cut its workforce there to 300, from a peak of 750 just before the 5G ban. John Lord, a former rear admiral in the Australian navy, stepped down as the company’s Australia chairman at the end of February, saying demand for its 4G technology—which accounts for 70% of local revenue—is fading, and Huawei’s role will shrink if it isn’t involved in 5G.
Mr. Lord said Huawei’s reduced presence there meant there was no need for him anymore. The company needs to “reshape itself, restructure itself, focus on where it is in Australia now and move on from there,” he said. With his departure, Huawei said it will do away with its independent board in Australia, established in 2011 to provide local oversight and battle skepticism about the Chinese company.
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