The return of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou has become a nationalist moment for China

Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou  is home.
Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou is home.
Image: CCTV via Reuters TV
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China is turning the return of Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou to the country into a celebration of its perceived diplomatic victory—a “win” rather than “win-win”—over the US and Canada. The timing couldn’t be better: its National Day celebrations fall on Oct. 1.

Meng, who is also the daughter of Huawei’s founder Ren Zhengfei, was arrested in late 2018 in Vancouver at the request of the US for alleged violations of its sanctions on Iran. After a lengthy battle against extradition in Canadian courts, Meng last week reached a deal with the US justice department. Meng admitted she misled banks regarding Huawei’s dealings with Iran; in exchange the US agreed to defer her prosecution until next year, after which the charges could be dismissed. Meng pleaded not guilty to charges of her committing bank and wire fraud.

The DOJ said it “continues to prepare for trial against Huawei, and we look forward to proving our case against the company in court.”

Hours after Meng’s release, China also freed Canadian citizens Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who were arrested on espionage charges days after Meng’s arrest in 2018, despite Beijing’s claims that its actions were not in retaliation over Meng. Some commentators saw the swap as a sign of possible improvement in tense US-China relations while others were more circumspect.

Huawei didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment.

“The motherland is our strongest backer”

Meng’s return has prompted an outpouring of nationalist sentiment from both Chinese citizens and state media, which have depicted her as a hero who faced unfair treatment by the US and Canada. Meng’s return flight, whose route was tracked by thousands of Chinese citizens online, arrived on Saturday at a major airport in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, where Huawei is headquartered. In a livestream by state broadcaster CCTV, a beaming Meng emerged from the chartered flight in a red dress, waving at the crowds waiting for her at the tarmac.

“Thanks for waiting for me till so late, I am finally home,” Meng said in a speech. “As an ordinary citizen, facing such a difficult situation and stuck in a foreign country for three years, I have never had a moment when I didn’t feel the caring and warmth from the [Chinese Communist] Party, the country, and the people. Chairman Xi cares about the safety of every citizen, and took my business to his heart, which has deeply touched me…the motherland is the strongest backer for us,” said Meng, referring to Chinese president Xi Jinping.

Meanwhile, inside the arrival halls of the airport that day, hundreds of people were singing the Chinese national anthem while waving the red national flags to greet Meng. “Arise! Arise! Arise! Many hearts with one mind, brave the enemy’s gunfire, march on!” the crowds sang. Outside the airport, Shenzhen’s signature skyscrapers also displayed messages welcoming Meng back.

On Chinese social media Weibo, Meng’s return dominated the list of trending topics, which been viewed billions of times so far. Chinese state media largely downplayed or even omitted Meng’s admission of some wrongdoing and instead used her return as proof that China will no longer be humiliated by foreign forces, and that Chinese individuals’ fate is closely intertwined with that of the Party—talking points the Party often resorts to when rebuking Western criticism.

The hashtag #a strong China is every Chinese citizen’s firmest backer, initiated by CCTV, shot to the top on Weibo today. Under the hashtag, CCTV wrote in an editorial that “not only for Meng…but whenever our citizens face danger, our country would always lend its hand to them, becoming their ‘Noah’s Ark.'”

“We will embrace the first National Day ever since the Party celebrated its 100th birthday, at this moment, we should cultivate our family and country feelings…and mix our individual dreams with the Chinese dream,” it said.

Spavor and Kovrig’s return home presented as vivid a contrast to Meng’s arrival in China as the difference between their respective detentions, with Meng moving around relatively freely once she was granted bail, while the two Canadians had little access to officials from their government.

The “princess of Huawei” is no ordinary citizen

But amid the seemingly overwhelming nationalist sentiment surrounding Meng, some voiced their criticism of the celebration. Some questioned state media’s contention that the country would engage in high-level diplomacy or send a flight to bring back every citizen in trouble overseas.

Many also contrasted the grand welcome and focus on Meng to the grim situation faced by many households in three provinces in northeastern China, where authorities have limited electricity usage due to the country’s power crunch caused by increased demand and rising coal prices, making it difficult for factories and businesses to operate as normal.

“When Meng’s plane flew across the skies above the northeastern provinces, the princess asked curiously whether they had arrived in Siberia as she could only see pitch black there,” joked one user on Weibo, referring to a Chinese nickname for Meng, the “princess of Huawei. “Instead, the flight crew said, no they were in northeastern China.”

“Could anyone explain to me why Meng’s return is that important…Shenzhen lit up lights to welcome Meng home, while residents in Northeastern region hide in their homes where there’s not a single trace of light,” wrote another.