The Economist provided sympathetic coverage of a Chinese tech giant widely considered a national security risk without disclosing the publication's lucrative business relationship with the firm that spanned nearly a decade.
Huawei Technologies commissioned the Economist‘s business consulting division to advance its policy agendas and deflect cybersecurity concerns raised by Western governments. The influential British magazine produced reports on a wide range of subjects—including a report on broadband access in the United Kingdom that Huawei credits to have influenced British policy. The publication has also run numerous Huawei advertisements, and its editors have cohosted several global forums with the company, helping the tech firm boost its public image as it faced growing scrutiny from the developed world for its close ties with the Chinese government.
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The Economist defended Huawei in a front-page cover story in 2012—the year the publication's consulting division started working with the company—that accused Western countries of using cybersecurity concerns as a pretense to oppose legitimate competition from Huawei. The publication's coverage of the tech company has become less overtly pro-Huawei in recent years, but the Economist‘s coverage of the company is seen as friendly enough that Huawei's PR division has cited several of the magazine's articles to deflect criticism.
"The rise of a Chinese world-beater is stoking fears of cyber-espionage. Techno-nationalism is not the answer," reads the 2012 piece's headline.
Huawei nurtured a lucrative relationship with the Economist just as it faced growing concerns from Western countries that broadband networks built by the tech firm serve as a conduit for Chinese espionage. Such cybersecurity concerns have pushed the United States, Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom, and other U.S. allies to severely curtail or outright ban the company's operations in their countries.
Huawei fought tooth and nail to stave off the government sanctions, an effort the Economist played a major role in. The publication's consulting division twice advised Huawei on how to address the concerns of Western countries and avoid their wrath. Huawei's ad buys in the Economist helped sanitize the company's murky ties with the Chinese government by borrowing the magazine's global reputation as a standard-bearer for an enlightened cosmopolitanism.
Neither the Economist nor Huawei responded to a request for comment.
The Economist‘s relationship with Huawei can be traced back to at least 2010, when the publication selected Huawei as the winner of its Corporate Use of Innovation award. But the partnership started in earnest in 2012, when the Economist Intelligence Unit—the magazine's consulting division—started publishing reports sponsored by Huawei. In total, the unit published at least seven Huawei-sponsored reports between 2012 and 2018.
Many of the reports analyzed the state of broadband networks in different parts of the world, from the United Kingdom to South East Asia. These reports advanced Huawei's broader agenda of making countries amenable to more investments in broadband networks and discouraging protectionist policies. For example, Huawei touted that findings from a 2012 Economist white paper on the British broadband network "have been considered and adopted by [the] U.K. government."
Other Economist Intelligence Unit reports explicitly supported Huawei's interests. In response to growing national security concerns about the firm in the United States and elsewhere, Huawei commissioned two reports—one public, one private—analyzing how Huawei can respond to growing government scrutiny and avoid crackdowns. The public report, published in 2014, advised Huawei to become an "industry leader in cyber-security."
"[Huawei] should also distance itself from China's image as a rather weak cyber-security environment," the report reads. "This would help to counter the negative perception of Huawei as a company willing to help governments monitor their populations."
That goal, according to the report, could be achieved by hosting public forums to "develop and co-ordinate industry standards on cyber-security." Huawei appears to have followed the recommendations, sponsoring several international forums to discuss IT-related issues.
The Economist played a major role in legitimizing these forums—its editors frequently participate in Huawei-hosted forums, including the magazine's deputy editor and business editor. The most recent forum took place on July 17. The Economist also published an online advertisement feature to promote Huawei's premier forum on the digital economy in 2018. In turn, Huawei executives have also participated in prestigious international forums sponsored by the Economist to tout the company's virtues.
In addition to the forums, Huawei also ran several ads in the Economist print edition and paid the magazine to produce sponsored content on its website. The most recent sponsored content—a foreboding video about the impact of the coronavirus on globalization—was published in September.
While the Economist‘s coverage of Huawei has become more skeptical of the Chinese firm over the years, the magazine continues to criticize U.S. efforts to sanction Huawei. The company has been all too happy to cite some of the Economist‘s coverage in its "facts" section, which seeks to assuage concerns about Huawei. Its CEO, Ren Zhengfei, also gave open-ended interviews with the publication in December 2019 and January 2020, the latter with the Economist‘s editor in chief.
None of the Economist‘s coverage of Huawei mentioned the publication's long-standing business relationship with the tech firm.
Nile Gardiner, a foreign policy expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that Huawei's relationship with the Economist appears to be part of its multifaceted campaign to influence British and European public opinion.
"Huawei has a large propaganda operation in Europe and invests vast sums of money to influence thinking in Europe," he said. "It is very disappointing that some European media organizations and businesses chose to collaborate with an entity that is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party."