The detention of a top Huawei executive is prompting some Chinese companies and business groups to call for workers to boycott products from US companies like Apple, prompting fears of a wider backlash.
Several organizations across China have issued notices urging staff members to show their support for Huawei, threatening punishment against anyone caught with Apple (AAPL) products or even offering subsidies to buy Chinese smartphones.
“The US aims to contain China’s rise … I believe we Chinese people should stand united and support our national products,” the Nanchong Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai said in a statement this week, warning any members who bought Apple products would be “banned.”
The crisis began after news emerged that Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer and the daughter of the company’s founder, was detained in Vancouver on December 1. She could face extradition to the United States, provoking fury in Chinese state media.
“To treat a Chinese citizen like a serious criminal, to roughly trample their basic human rights, and to dishonor their dignity, how is this the method of a civilized country? How can this not make people furious?” said an editorial in People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party.
The growing backlash has echoes of previous boycotts in China which have followed perceived insults to the country and at times resulted in large-scale, destructive protests.
In 2012, Japanese companies were attacked and at least one person was killed amid mass demonstrations staged throughout China over a territorial dispute with Japan. Similar scenes occurred in 2008, after the French government appeared to lend its support to Tibetan independence advocates.
Rana Mitter, director of the University China Center at Oxford University, told CNN the boycott of US goods was the start of a pattern seen frequently in China over the past three decades.
But “these things don’t normally escalate to a larger level if there isn’t some level of official permission to go ahead, as with the Japan demonstrations back in 2012,” he said.
‘Stop purchasing US brands’
No major companies or government departments have publicly endorsed or taken part in the calls for boycotts yet, but a range of smaller suppliers and groups have enthusiastically taken part.
Shenzhen-based electronic parts supplier Menpad said Monday that it would give a 15% subsidy to any employees who bought phones from Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE (ZTCOF).
“The company will punish staff who buy Apple phones with a fine of 100% of market price,” the notice to all staff members said. “Stop purchasing US brands for company equipment like work computers.”
The notice has since been taken down and the company did not respond to CNN’s attempts to contact them.
In the western province of Sichuan, Chengdu RYD Information Technology said that it would only source Huawei equipment where possible from now on. It would also be offering staff a 15% subsidy on Huawei products.
“Chengdu RYD admires and cooperates with suppliers who have great strength and quality products and services,” the midsized technology startup said on its official social media account.
Luo Qiang, secretary of the Nanchong Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai, told CNN the group hadn’t been guided by the government in ordering a boycott but was speaking out as “grassroots” citizens.
“We don’t have guns or cannons, we as common citizens only have freedom of speech,” she told CNN. The chamber claims to have as many as 500 members.
Other companies limited themselves to only supporting Huawei, without mentioning an Apple boycott, such as Xinjiang Nor-West Star Information Technology.
“Our company actively backs the calls to support Huawei and protect national brands with real action,” the company’s statement said.
Trade talks to continue
Despite the furious reaction to Meng’s arrest and the stern denunciations in Chinese state media, Washington and Beijing are pushing ahead with trade talks.
According to a statement from the Chinese Commerce Ministry, China’s top trade negotiator, Liu He, spoke on the phone Tuesday with US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.
The US and Chinese officials discussed “implementing the agreements” reached by US President Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the G20 in Buenos Aires earlier in December, the statement said.
The two sides gave themselves 90 days to reach a lasting agreement. The Trump administration has threatened it could increase tariffs on Chinese goods from 10% to 25% if no deal is reached by March 1.
Mitter said the Chinese government would want to avoid any larger boycotts or backlash against the United States or Canada while the trade talks were ongoing because of fears the US government might pull out.
“The stakes are very, very high in terms of the overall trade dispute between the US and China,” he said.