Tech

Gifts, Gadgets and Greece: Inside a Huawei Lobbying Campaign

In November 2020, executives at Huawei, the Chinese telecom-equipment maker, exchanged messages about holding a meeting with a “friend” and an “adviser” in Greece.

The contacts, identified as Greek government advisers, were set to provide Huawei with something valuable: a document outlining government contracts and “first priority projects” that the company might want to work on in the country. Huawei managers discussed giving the advisers a Huawei Mate XS smartphone, the company’s GT 2 smartwatch and wine, according to internal text messages and other documents reviewed by The New York Times.

The plans are “strictly confidential among us,” a Huawei manager wrote in a group chat named after Greece’s digital ministry.

The exchange was part of more than 120 messages and summaries of internal Huawei communications provided to The Times by a person working for a European government that investigated the company. The materials, which identified the contacts as government officials, offer a rare look at how Huawei tried to cultivate relationships with high-ranking figures in Greece, a small but important country for the company, and pushed the limits of Greek rules that restrict gifts to civil servants and government ministers.

In the communications, Huawei employees discussed providing gadgets to a senior Greek government minister and his son, giving devices to police and immigration officials and organizing transportation for Greek regulators during an industry conference in the United Arab Emirates in 2021. The messages did not say whether the gifts were ultimately delivered or if deals for the priority projects were signed.

Huawei, which sits in the middle of a technological Cold War between the United States and China, has been under a cloud for more than five years over fears that Beijing can use its technology for spying or sabotage. The company has denied the accusations.

The U.S. government has restricted the use of Huawei equipment in the country and cut the company off from access to certain American technology. U.S. officials have also aggressively lobbied allies to ban Huawei’s gear in Europe, the company’s largest market outside China.

Greece is a prime example of the mixed success of the American lobbying campaign. It has not prohibited Huawei’s products outright, and the company has battled to keep its hard-won hold in the country.

“Huawei views the U.S. actions as an existential threat,” said Emily Kilcrease, a former deputy assistant U.S. trade representative who studies the U.S.-Chinese economic relationship at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank.

The Times corroborated the internal communications, which were sent from 2020 to 2021, at the height of American efforts to ban Huawei technology, by matching names, phone numbers and other information in the messages. The Times agreed not to disclose the government that conducted the investigation.

“Huawei conducts business ethically and with integrity, and complies with all applicable laws and regulations in every country and region in which we operate,” the company said in a statement.

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Pavlos Marinakis, a Greek government spokesman, said Huawei’s technology had a limited presence in the country’s new telecom networks.

“There has never been, whatsoever, any direct or indirect influence by said company in government policy decisions, agreements and/or contracts,” he said in an email.

Ren Zhengfei, Huawei’s founder, has such an affinity for Europe that the company’s campus in Dongguan, China, includes replicas of buildings in Paris and Heidelberg, Germany. The company has operated in Europe for over 20 years, selling switches, antennas and other equipment for wireless networks, as well as consumer devices like smartphones and tablets.

European telecom providers, including Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom, have bought Huawei’s gear, which has tended to be cheaper than products from rivals like Ericsson and Nokia. Roughly 23 percent of Huawei’s $92 billion in revenue last year came from Europe, the Middle East and Africa, up 13 percent from a year earlier.

Huawei built a robust lobbying operation in Europe, hiring influential political and industry figures, as well as donating to charities, universities and other local initiatives. Those efforts have helped the company’s standing in the region, with many European governments hesitating to embrace the U.S. effort to stymie sales and remove Huawei equipment from older cellular networks.

A review of 31 European countries shows that Huawei and other Chinese vendors accounted for more than 50 percent of equipment related to high-speed 5G networks at the end of 2022, according to Strand Consult, a telecom-focused research firm. Britain and Sweden have severely restricted Huawei from their newest networks, while Germany has indicated it may tighten its rules against the company’s gear. Italy and Spain are among those that have continued buying from Huawei, the firm said.

“The story is how Huawei is navigating the European landscape to try to maintain the position they have,” said John Strand, the chief executive of Strand Consult. “They are playing all the cards they can play.”

Greece has been a conundrum. It has reliably defended Beijing’s interests in the European Union, particularly after the 2008 global financial crisis, when China provided financial aid for projects such as the port of Piraeus, which a Chinese state company now owns. More recently, though, Greece has reoriented itself more toward the West.

The country has also taken a contradictory stance on Huawei. It has not banned the firm’s products, but the government and businesses in the country have tried distancing themselves from the Chinese company.

In 2020, Greece joined the Clean Networks initiative, a voluntary and nonbinding agreement to avoid using technology from authoritarian governments, which the Trump administration spearheaded. Greece’s three largest wireless network operators have also turned more to Huawei’s rivals, Ericsson and Nokia, to build new 5G networks.

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Still, Huawei’s sales in Greece rose 56 percent last year to 258 million euros ($273 million), according to Greek regulatory filings. The company provided technology for the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation, the state-owned TV and radio broadcaster, as well as the public health care service and the port of Piraeus.

As scrutiny of Huawei increased, the company was on the defensive, according to the messages obtained by The Times.

In 2020, company executives in Greece discussed a letter circulated by European Parliament members that called for a ban of Huawei products. Jacky Chen, a senior executive in the region, asked Theo Tamvakidis, a manager in Greece, to speak with Eva Kaili and Maria Spyraki, two Greek members of the European Parliament.

“Ask for support,” Mr. Chen said in a message. “Don’t make Huawei trouble in E.U. level if possible.”

Mr. Tamvakidis responded, “I think I can still convince her,” referring to Ms. Kaili and describing her as a friend he had known for years.

It’s unclear if Huawei spoke to the two policymakers. Ms. Kaili was arrested last year as part of a corruption scandal, accused of accepting bribes from Qatar. She has denied wrongdoing.

In an interview, Mr. Tamvakidis said Huawei was constantly “trying to convince people we are not a threat to society, that we are not a public menace.”

Ms. Kaili and Ms. Spyraki did not respond to requests for comment.

At other times, Huawei hastened to help Greek government officials with their personal technology, according to the communications.

In July 2021, Mr. Tamvakidis rushed to find a replacement device for an unnamed immigration official who had contacted him about a broken screen on a Mate X, a foldable smartphone that retailed for more than €2,000. Huawei had given it to him as a “present,” according to the messages.

“He uses it only for making photos with his Huawei laptop we gave him,” Mr. Tamvakidis said in the messages.

Under Greek law, it is illegal for people in the private sector to offer gifts to government officials in exchange for favors. Government ministers, members of Parliament and civil servants also cannot accept gifts that could be considered linked to their official responsibilities, said Stefanos Loukopoulos, director of Vouliwatch, a government watchdog group in Athens.

High-ranking officials can accept certain ceremonial gifts worth less than €200, but more expensive items must be turned over to the government. Declaring gifts is mandatory for Greek ministers under a 2021 law, but the registry has not been made public, Mr. Loukopoulos said.

“Greece has on paper a very solid anti-corruption and anti-bribery framework,” he said. But transparency is almost nonexistent, he added, and enforcement of the laws is “very problematic.”

In 2020, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo led a U.S. delegation to Greece to complete a technology and science agreement between the countries, Huawei executives discussed having someone present during the negotiations to help remove references to cybersecurity and Chinese companies.

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“We discussed with Adonis and took it out,” Mr. Tamvakidis wrote to a colleague several months after the summit.

Mr. Tamvakidis was referring to Adonis Georgiadis, a senior Greek minister who sat next to Mr. Pompeo to sign the 2020 agreement in the port city Thessaloniki. Whether Mr. Georgiadis influenced the negotiations in Huawei’s favor is unclear, but the company had fostered a relationship with him for years, according to the internal files and public information.

Huawei employees discussed how Mr. Georgiadis, who was the minister of development at the time, received devices from the company while working as a government official. He also posted pictures of his visits to Huawei’s offices and events on social media. The nonbinding 2020 agreement signed by Mr. Pompeo and Greek officials, which was aimed at strengthening tech and scientific collaboration, did not ultimately mention cybersecurity or Chinese companies.

Mr. Pompeo declined to comment.

Mr. Georgiadis, who is an ally of Greece’s prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, said he was not involved in specifics of the tech-science agreement and had no communication with Huawei before it was signed. He said he had been childhood friends with Mr. Tamvakidis and never accepted gifts from Huawei, but bought “two or three” devices for family members with retail receipts. He declined to provide copies of the receipts.

“I never had, or still have, no special relationship with that company,” he said in an email. “No agreement, investment, contract, concession or project was rendered to Huawei during my term of office.”

Mr. Tamvakidis said he did not recall the specifics of the 2020 agreement but said Huawei might have been “informed that nothing was inside that would be of danger.” He did not say who had provided that information.

Mr. Tamvakidis said that he had helped facilitate Huawei devices for Mr. Georgiadis, including for a family member, but that the gadgets had not been offered free. He said the sales were invoiced, but did not provide copies. Government officials sometimes received devices before they were publicly released or at discounted prices, he said.

“There was nothing in exchange,” he said. “Huawei is very sensitive about this.”

Soon after Mr. Pompeo’s visit to Greece, Mr. Georgiadis, who is now the minister of labor, came up again in messages between Huawei officials.

“Adonis needs two more watches. GT Pro. He loved it,” Mr. Tamvakidis wrote in October 2020. Later that month, Mr. Georgiadis was photographed wearing what appeared to be a Huawei watch.

In a 2021 exchange, Huawei employees discussed replacing a broken phone for Mr. Georgiadis’s son.

“Adonis is a special case,” Mr. Tamvakidis wrote.

Paul Mozur contributed reporting.

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