The five men were all involved in disputes with their former employer, Chinese technology giant Huawei. And they had all joined a group in the WeChat social app to organize them.
Then one of them wrote a message to the group that would change their lives:
“I can prove that Huawei has sold to Iran.”
The message and the short discussion that followed touched on an explosive topic for the company. Huawei had just started fighting the US government’s allegations committed fraud To circumvent sanctions against Iran. The company’s chief financial officer, a daughter of its founder, had been arrested less than two weeks earlier in the case.
The messages from employees in the chat group did not contain any clear evidence that Huawei’s activities in Iran were illegal. But within a few weeks, the Chinese police had arrested all five men, two of whom told the New York Times.
The two former employees – Li Hongyuan (42) and Zeng Meng (39) – said the officials asked them about Iran and why they had been in contact with foreign news agencies, both of which they had discussed on WeChat.
Mr. Li ended up being detained for more than eight months. Mr. Zeng spent three.
Huawei, the world’s largest manufacturer of telecommunications equipment and a leading smartphone brand, has been the target of intensive action by the Trump administration for over a year. The Justice Department has accused Huawei of stealing business secrets and Lies about his business in Iran. The company denies misconduct. American officials say Huawei is answering the Chinese government, which the company also denies.
But even if Huawei is not controlled by the government, Chinese officials often defend it as if it were a strategically important state good.
And in the case of the detained employees, Li and Zeng said the police apparently partially arrested them to keep them from talking about Huawei’s activities in Iran.
Huawei declined to comment. It referred to an earlier statement that Mr. Li’s case was not a labor dispute and that the company had reported alleged illegal behavior to the authorities. Huawei also reaffirmed its commitment to comply with the law wherever it operates.
The Shenzhen City police who confiscated the men did not respond to a faxed request for comment.
The news of Mr. Li’s arrest began a wave of anger at Huawei in China last year. Internet users were outraged that a vengeful company had punished an employee who dared to demand payment. Censors quickly deleted critical comments and articles. At this point, however, the interest of the police in staff discussions about Iran was not reported.
Mr. Li, Mr. Zeng, and the three others were arrested for the first time in December 2018, not long after the world learned that Washington was accusing Huawei Fraud related to Iranian business. The five men were involved in labor disputes with the company, chatting and feeling sorry for themselves in a WeChat group.
The discussion about Iran took place on December 11, according to the Times screenshots. Days later, Mr. Li was arrested in Shenzhen, where Huawei is headquartered. Shortly afterwards, Mr. Zeng was arrested in Thailand, where he was on vacation, and taken back to China.
For Huawei, not all sales to Iran would have been illegal. In principle, only those who affect goods, technologies or services from the United States would violate American sanctions. The company stated that its sales in Iran were for commercial civil purposes and did not violate sanctions.
Still, Mr. Li said, the police asked him about his involvement in Iran, which he mentioned on WeChat. As a former global manager in Huawei’s electrical inverter business, Mr. Li naturally had contacts with colleagues in Iran, he told The Times. But he said he had never been there himself.
“I only knew so much. Whatever I knew, I told them everything, ”said Mr. Li. The police did not say why they asked him about Iran, he said.
The police also knew that he had arranged to meet a reporter for a Hong Kong news agency this month, Mr. Li said. But he had planned to talk to the reporter about Huawei’s work and tax practices, not about Iran, he said.
“I said,” There is nothing illegal about that, “Mr. Li recalled.
Mr. Zeng said the police had made it clear to him that by discussing Huawei’s Iranian business and communicating with foreign news agencies, the former employees had crossed a line.
China and the United States are in a trade war, Mr. Zeng said an officer told him. Didn’t you just cause trouble in a delicate time?
It was the equivalent, said Mr. Zeng, that the officer had told him to support Japan after it invaded China in the 1930s.
“At the time, the Meng situation was too hot,” said Li, referring to the arrest of Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou. “You may have feared that we would make these noises and cause problems for Boss Meng.”
The three other detained employees could not be contacted.
Mr. Zeng said he had worked as a product manager for Huawei in Morocco when the company said in 2017 that it was unsatisfied with its performance. He was released in May of the next year, but his severance package did not include his year-end bonus and he sued.
During this time, Mr. Zeng was looking for other disgruntled Huawei employees to add them to a WeChat group. It reached Mr. Li, who sued Huawei for his own bonus after his contract was not renewed. The group eventually swelled to more than 60 people.
They knew that they were probably being monitored. Huawei has a habit of infiltrating the chat groups of unfortunate employees, Zeng said.
In November 2018, a WeChat group consisting of Mr. Li, Mr. Zeng and a few others separated from the larger one. They discussed how international news media can be made aware of Huawei’s work practices.
On December 11, the larger WeChat group discussed Huawei’s political problems when someone in the group approached Iran, as screenshots of the news show.
“I worked on IranCell projects from 2012 to 2014,” wrote the person, referring to an Iranian telecommunications operator. “I was on a business trip.”
“I can also confirm it,” replied Mr. Li. “Internally, it is an open secret that Huawei sells to Iran.”
The police arrested Mr. Li on December 16, according to a document from the Shenzhen Procuratorate. He was initially accused of disclosing business secrets, he said. Mr. Zeng said he was arrested on the same charge two weeks later.
The three other employees also belonged to the smaller WeChat group, said Zeng. He said one was the person who spoke about Iran for the first time in the larger group.
When the police took Mr. Zeng back to his Thai hotel, an officer called his phone, he recalled. The officer saw that he had been in contact with international news agencies, including The Times, about the arrests of his colleagues.
The officer said a word, said Mr. Zeng. Did he really have to go to the foreign media? asked the officer.
Mr. Zeng said his damp cell in Shenzhen detained more than 30 detainees. Only around noon would it get some sunlight on a piece of wall near the toilet. They crowded around, basking in the warmth and holding their noses.
After Mr. Zeng was detained for a few weeks, the police changed the allegation against him into fraud, he said. He denied misconduct and was released in March 2019. But he said the police first persuaded him to write a statement promising not to publicly act against Huawei’s Iranian line of business or to be ambushed by foreign forces, a reference to the international news media.
The allegation against Mr. Li was blackmail after all. He was released without charge in August.
“China is still far from the rule of law,” he said.