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Huawei goes on a charm offensive to fight allegations

It's a remarkable shift for a giant whose founder had spurned the media

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At the phone industry's flagship conference in Barcelona earlier this week, Huawei's rotating chairman Guo Ping laid into the US, claiming America was spying on its own corporations.

Beijing

HUAWEI Technologies Co has turned to a blend of wit, sarcasm and defiance to publicly fight allegations that the world's largest maker of telecommunications equipment is spying for China.

It's a remarkable shift for a giant whose billionaire founder Ren Zhengfei spurned the media and avoided overt displays of power.

Rotating chairman Guo Ping encapsulates its new credo. Striding onstage before hundreds of people at the phone industry's flagship conference this week, he opened with a joke directly addressing the company's demons: "There has never been more interest in Huawei. We must be doing something right."

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Mr Guo laid into the United States, which vaulted Huawei into the public eye when it orchestrated last year's arrest by Canadian authorities of chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, who is also the founder's daughter.

He urged the crowd in Barcelona to reject using politics to manage cybersecurity and turned the spotlight on America, which he said was spying on its own corporations. Some audience members applauded.

"Prism, prism on the wall, who is the most trustworthy of them all?" Mr Guo said, referring to the code name of the surveillance system used by the US to access private communications from Internet companies. "If you don't answer that, you can go ask Edward Snowden."

In the short span since Meng's Dec 1 arrest, Huawei has gone from besieged target to unapologetic champion of telecommunications security. Assailed by US accusations it aids Beijing, it has morphed into an outspoken company few could have imagined just a year ago. That comes despite facing a concerted American campaign to blockade it from operating in Europe, Australia and around the world.

The jury is still out on whether the charm offensive has worked, but in recent weeks the discussion has grown more nuanced.

European carriers have offered to help governments devise a way to work with Huawei while warding off security concerns.

Leaders in New Zealand, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom have pushed back against US pressure for a blanket ban on the Shenzhen-based company's products.

Huawei was largely unknown outside of China before recent clashes with the US, and Mr Ren hadn't spoken with foreign media since 2015. But in recent years, the closely held company started publicly releasing financial statements, sponsoring sports teams and churning out cheeky ads around the world.

After Meng's arrest, it orchestrated an unusual public relations move by releasing a translated entry from her personal diary. Huawei said she'd kept a journal for years and wanted to share her feelings on recent events, including how she burst into tears after supporters contacted her to protest her arrest.

Then in January, Huawei invited journalists from foreign media to a round-table discussion with Mr Ren, who denied espionage allegations and a link to the Chinese government and called Donald Trump a "great president".

The founder has been charging hard on the speaking circuit ever since, including sitting down for tea with the BBC, where he stressed that there's "no way the US can crush us".

The company created a web page and Twitter account called @Huaweifacts, started beefing up its media relations teams and touted new technologies around 5G and its newly-launched US$2,600 foldable mobile phone.

On Wednesday, Mr Guo penned a commentary piece for the Financial Times in which he criticised the hacking of Huawei servers by the National Security Agency (NSA). "Clearly, the more Huawei gear is installed in the world's telecommunications networks, the harder it becomes for the NSA to 'collect it all," he wrote. "Huawei, in other words, hampers US efforts to spy on whomever it wants. This is the first reason for the campaign against us."

A Huawei executive even reached out to Mr Trump directly on Twitter when the US president commented on American digital supremacy. "Mr President. I cannot agree with you more. Our company is always ready to help build the real 5G network in the US, through competition," wrote Ken Hu, another of Huawei's rotating chairmen.

Inside the company, Mr Ren told employees to be "combat ready" in the face of global competition and geopolitical challenges. "Now, some countries want to block our investment in scientific research, disrupt our efforts to learn the advanced technologies," Mr Ren said when addressing employees at a company event on Feb 16. "We need to be prepared."

Huawei's communications team said it's ramping up efforts to respond to what it calls "false allegations, fake news and rumours".

The company kept a low profile in the past because it was privately owned in a highly competitive industry, which could have led to "misperceptions we are too secretive", spokesman Glenn Schloss said. BLOOMBERG