Huawei Arrest Tests China’s Leaders as Fear and Anger Grip Elite

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BEIJING — The arrest of one of China’s leading tech executives by the Canadian police for extradition to the United States has unleashed a combustible torrent of outrage and alarm among affluent and influential Chinese, posing a delicate political test for President Xi Jinping and his grip on the loyalty of the nation’s elite.

The outpouring of conflicting sentiments — some Chinese have demanded a boycott of American products while others have expressed anxiety about their investments in the United States — underscores the unusual, politically charged nature of the Trump administration’s latest move to counter China’s drive for technological superiority.

Unlike a new round of tariffs or more tough rhetoric from American officials, the detention of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of the Chinese telecom giant Huawei, appears to have driven home the intensifying rivalry between the United States and China in a visceral way for the Chinese establishment — and may force Mr. Xi to adopt a tougher stance against Washington, analysts said.

In part, that is because Ms. Meng, 47, is so embedded in that establishment herself.

She is one of China’s most prominent businesswomen — well-traveled, fluent in English, the heir apparent to a global technology firm that is a source of pride for both ordinary Chinese and the ruling Communist Party. She is also the daughter of the company’s legendary founder, Ren Zhengfei, who built the company after a stint in the People’s Liberation Army. That makes her corporate royalty in China — the equivalent of someone like Sheryl Sandberg, if Ms. Sandberg were also the daughter of an American tech pioneer such as Steve Jobs.

Now Ms. Meng is in police custody, after being detained during an airport layover in Vancouver on Saturday, and the outcry has put the Chinese leadership on the spot. Mr. Xi faces competing pressures — to show strength, perhaps by retaliating against the United States, but also to limit the cost of rising tensions and the trade war with Washington on China’s ruling class.

“Her arrest will have phenomenal repercussions in China,” said Tao Jingzhou, a corporate lawyer in Beijing.

“The wealthy have already been worried for a long time about their safety and their wealth in America,” he added. “If the U.S. is going to pursue corruption and extraterritorial laws, that will increase.”

Though Mr. Xi’s status as China’s paramount leader is unchallenged, his management of the economy and relations with the United States had come under criticism before Ms. Meng’s arrest, with some blaming him as pushing overly ambitious policies that aggravated the Trump administration and provoked the trade war.

And the timing of Ms. Meng’s detention may mean more pressure on Mr. Xi. It occurred as he and Mr. Trump were discussing a truce in the trade war over dinner in Buenos Aires. Aides said Mr. Trump was unaware of the arrest at the time, but some Chinese are already saying the American side’s failure to raise it at the summit meeting amounted to a loss of face for Mr. Xi, and perhaps a deliberate attempt by hawks in Washington to embarrass China.

Others said Ms. Meng’s arrest would embolden those who have long suspected that the United States is determined to block China’s rise. “This will just confirm everyone’s worst suspicions about the U.S.,” said one retired businesswoman with family ties to the party leadership, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Deng Yuwen, a political analyst in Beijing, said conservative forces in the Chinese government and society could use Ms. Meng’s arrest to resist concessions as trade talks unfold in the next few months.

“If the U.S. makes an example of Huawei, the conservative nationalist forces in China and also the military will be very unhappy, and that will make it even more difficult to make compromises with the United States,” he said.

“In the short term, the United States might gain from playing this card, but in the longer term, it doesn’t gain from this,” Mr. Deng added. “This will make it harder for the reformers to speak up.”

Mr. Xi has not publicly commented on Ms. Meng’s detention, but the Chinese Foreign Ministry has objected forcefully and demanded her release. A spokesman, Geng Shuang, said Washington needed to explain why Ms. Meng was being held and accused Canada and the United States of violating her rights.

The Justice Department is investigating Huawei for possible violations of sanctions against Iran but it has not disclosed any details or said anything about the charges against Ms. Meng. The Canadian authorities have also been silent, citing a request from Ms. Meng for a gag order to protect her right to a fair trial.

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Meng Wanzhou, the tech executive who has been detained, is corporate royalty in China. Her father, Ren Zhengfei, built Huawei after a stint in the People’s Liberation Army.CreditAlexander Bibik/Reuters

In the absence of facts, Chinese social media has lit up with commentary on American wickedness. Many users have maintained that Ms. Meng has essentially been abducted by the United States, and argued that Chinese are no longer safe anywhere. Others have accused the United States of overreach, asking why Huawei’s activities in Iran should be subject to American laws.

In one widely distributed video, an investment consultant named Chen Shouhua drops an iPhone on the floor and smashes it with a hammer. He calls for a nationwide boycott of Apple products in an accompanying article.

“During the Sino-U.S. trade war, let’s not buy any American products and let’s not travel to the United States,” wrote another internet user.

The backlash against the United States can be traced in part to national pride in Huawei, which is seen in China as a homegrown corporate success story — a local firm that has bested foreign rivals to become one of the world’s dominant manufacturers of telecom hardware and other cutting-edge technology. Based in the southern city of Shenzhen, it employs about 180,000 people around the world, and Huawei phones are the most prized possessions of tens of millions of Chinese, far outselling the iPhone in China.

While foreigners may be interested in whether Ms. Meng was traveling on a Chinese passport, “for the Chinese public, it doesn’t matter. We know she is the daughter of Ren Zhengfei. That is enough,” said Yu Yongding, a prominent economist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “This is China’s best company.”

Wu Xinbo, a professor of international studies at Fudan University, said many Chinese will see Ms. Meng’s arrest as part of an attempt by the United States to force China to continue manufacturing low-end consumer goods and prevent it from moving up to produce more advanced and valuable products.

People in China are aware that Washington considers Huawei to be an arm of Chinese intelligence and has cited security risks in urging allies around the world to avoid its equipment. But they think that is unproven and unfair.

“It’s not necessary to kill Huawei,” said Cheng Xiaohe, professor of international relations at Renmin University. “To kill Huawei is like killing Boeing.”

One young entrepreneur, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington did not seem to understand that going after Huawei would be seen as an insult by many Chinese. But he indicated that many in the Chinese elite were worried about the deteriorating relationship between China and the United States.

After Ms. Meng’s arrest, he said, his friends joked that they would no longer be able to send their children to American boarding schools and would have to invest in the Chinese education system instead.

China’s state-controlled news media has exercised restraint since the start of the trade war, refraining from a full-throated campaign of anti-American propaganda. But there has been an uptick of such rhetoric since Ms. Meng’s arrest.

Hu Xijin, the editor of The Global Times, one of the nation’s most nationalistic outlets, wrote that the arrest amounted to “a declaration of war” against China.

“We call on the Chinese government and society to offer moral support to Huawei, and Chinese diplomats to offer timely assistance to Meng,” the newspaper wrote in an editorial. “We also support Huawei in its legal battle with the U.S. to prove its innocence and thwart America’s plot to throw the company off track.”

Wang Xiaodong, a Communist Youth League researcher and prominent nationalist writer, suggested the government go further and retaliate by detaining Americans.

“They can make up a criminal charge to arrest Ren Zhengfei’s daughter,” he wrote in a social media post, referring to Huawei’s founder. “Why can’t we make up some criminal charges so we can arrest all Americans in China?”

While Mr. Wang is known for his heated rhetoric, experts said a similar kind of retaliation was not out of the question.

“If I was a U.S. tech executive,” said James A. Lewis, the director of the technology program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “I wouldn’t go to China for a while.”

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