A new front opens in Huawei’s battle for Central Europe

Arrest of Huawei’s executive in Poland on spying charges raises the stakes in the region.

Huawei’s battle for Central Europe has seen new developments since our last post on the topic. In Prague the PRC embassy and pro-CCP politicians rush to attack the Czech intelligence agencies for their warning against Huawei products. In neighboring Poland, Wang Weijing 王伟晶, a company executive has been arrested, under suspicion of cooperating with Chinese intelligence. On the same day the news became public, a Polish official announced the government is considering issuing a warning against Huawei, adding that “certain companies” could be “excluded from the Polish IT market”. The PRC’s overt and clumsy support for Huawei, a company linked to the Chinese Party-State-Military, may in the end fail. The company could end up locked out of Europe exactly due to overplaying the Chinese diplomatic corps less diplomatic side and the rage of CCP state media.

This is a brief update summarizing the latest developments in Poland, including new details on the background of the arrested individuals.

The arrests

Wang was arrested together with Piotr Durbajło, a former intelligence agent who had recently worked for Orange as a consultant. According to Polish press reports, Orange’s offices in Poland were also searched as part of the investigation. The Orange connection is particularly noteworthy: as recently discussed on Sinopsis,

while its French parent declines to use Huawei equipment at home, Orange Poland has begun 5G tests in partnership with Huawei.

Durbajło was deputy director of IT Security at the Internal Security Agency (Agencja Bezpieczeństwa Wewnętrznego, ABW), a post he left in 2011, in what sources quoted by Polish media linked to a corruption investigation. He was likely leaving with a grudge, and  sensitive knowledge: he was involved, in particular, in the implementation of a communications system for the Polish EU presidency, also intended for use by the president, the cabinet and various state organs.

Wang Weijing 王伟晶, also known as Stanisław Wang, studied Polish at Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU, 北京外国语大学) and worked at the PRC consulate in Gdańsk before joining Huawei. After a few months handling “contact with embassies” in Beijing, he was sent to Poland in 2011, first as PR director and more recently in charge of public sector sales, responsible, among other things, for “economic diplomacy.”

Huawei and CEE

Even before the arrest of its executive, it was clear that Poland, the largest market in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), was a crucial battlefield in Huawei’s struggle to avoid getting locked out of Europe, perhaps one of the reasons the reaction to the Czech intelligence warning was so swift and crude. Not only has Huawei been testing 5G technology in Poland with Orange: last month, Deutsche Telekom launched 5G coverage in central Warsaw, using Huawei technology.

Besides the 5G rollout, the CEE region is important as a potential market for Huawei’s smart and “safe” city projects. The previous Sinopsis post highlighted Huawei’s cooperation with Public Security in China and, in particular, Xinjiang, in the context of efforts to sell smart city technology in the Czech Republic:

The security and human-rights implications of Huawei’s “smart” and “safe city” solutions are of particular relevance to the Czech Republic. Adriana Krnáčová, mayor of Prague until last month for the ruling ANO party, displayed a special interest in PRC smart-city technology: during her 2016 visit to Shanghai, she talked about smart cities “intensively” with the local government. Krnáčová revisited the topic during a meeting with the PRC ambassador the following year. The Prague government signed an agreement with Huawei on intelligent freight transport at a 2017 event that also promoted the company’s smart-city technology. Smart and “safe” cities are among the areas the company wants to “cooperate” on in the next five years.

Huawei has also been promoting smart city technology in Poland, often represented by the now arrested Wang. We have previously noted some commonalities between the CCP’s influence activities abroad and Huawei’s public relations work, with special attention to Poland:

The PR strategies Huawei has adopted, as well as its targets, overlap with those encountered in the analysis of global United Front work; the Party-state’s support for the company demands a wider discussion informed by the CCP’s international influence operations, a main focus of Sinopsis’ coverage of the Czech Republic and other locales. The Polish case neatly illustrates this connection: a local Huawei interlocutor is known as a contact favoured by the CCP’s International Liaison Department, a Comintern-inspired organ whose expansion to general political influence work we have been describing in a series of posts.

As Huawei’s head of PR, Wang has exemplified, in particular, strategies of localization, often used by potentially controversial entities to cultivate relations at regional and subnational level, outside the scrutiny of better informed actors. Wang’s praise of localized hiring and “local cooperation” can be compared to the company’s efforts to develop local-level ties. Higher education, in particular, is “really important” for Huawei, as Wang once put it. Wang often represented the company at meetings at Polish universities, from Gdańsk University of Technology, where he was accompanied by officials from the consulate that once employed him, to the Military University of Technology in Warsaw.

The captured elite to the rescue

Two days after the arrest of its suspected spy, and hours before it became public, Huawei received a much needed high-profile endorsement. After failing to secure support from the Czech PM Babiš at an emergency meeting with the Chinese ambassador, Czech President Miloš Zeman finally delivered the needful. Reading from prepared notes, he spent much of an interview with CEFC-financed TV Barrandov attacking his own country’s intelligence services over the Huawei warning. Although unable to pronounce the company’s name, Zeman seemed  intimately cognizant of its ability to retaliate with the might of the Chinese state. According to the president, “some ministers in the Czech Government” had been informed that the intelligence warning could damage the Czech economy by preventing Huawei from investing in 5G infrastructure in the country, or hurting the prospects of Czech firms, such as PPF and Škoda Auto. The Government later denied it would have received any such information.

Within hours, the PRC government had endorsed Zeman’s statements: at the regular MFA press conference, spokesperson Lu Kang 陆慷 echoed and praised the president’s “positive attitude” towards Sino-Czech relations, as evidenced in his disavowal of the Huawei warning.

In practice, the PRC’s position on its tech champion had been delivered to the Czech public, this time not through an ambassador, but through the country’s own president. At times like this, Zeman, a quintessential example of elite capture, reveals the usefulness of the tactic as a policy tool.

The response from the political establishment in the Czech Republic has been lukewarm, or outright negative. Even politicians previously supporting Zeman in his China endeavors seem to have been taken aback this time. The only other person openly jumping to Huawei’s rescue was Vojtěch Filip, leader of the Czech Communist Party (KSČM). The day after Zeman’s interview, Filip, whose usual contacts in China mostly consist of the CCP International Liaison Department and various UFWD outfits, announced a four-day China trip to smooth out the case with persons or entities he would not identify.

The end of Huawei’s Polish idyll

The deployment of these political allies apparently failed to end Huawei’s CEE troubles. Not a day after news of the arrest came out, Karol Okoński, Poland’s vice minister for digital affairs stated that the government is considering a “recommendation” on Huawei, adding that it would be ideal that EU and NATO members had “maximally close and consistent” positions on the matter.

The circumstances increasingly indicate that in practice we might have to eventually exclude some suppliers from the Polish IT market.

A hand perhaps too heavy

The importance of Poland for Huawei’s continued presence in the CEE market, which, as previously argued, might have helped motivate the PRC’s heavy-handed defense of the company when threatened in Prague, has now become obvious. As during the Christmas maneuvering, the forceful propaganda tactics chosen could well prove effective in gathering domestic political support for the Party-state’s tech champion, but have not helped in the region itself. With the exception of the CCP’s old and new local friends, Czech reactions to the defense of Huawei were generally negative; the embassy’s attempts to bully the Babiš government into disavowing the warning managed to get the PM to publicly accuse the ambassador of lying. The Polish arrests, which, unlike in the case of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, directly involve alleged espionage, followed by government talk of “excluding” Huawei from the Polish market, don’t augur well for the company’s further advance in the region.


[Edited on 2 February to correct Karol Okoński’s position.]