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The anger directed toward Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, seen on Oct. 3, 2019, reflected an uneasy moment for both Huawei and China’s middle-class professionals.

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

On the anniversary of her arrest in Canada, Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of the Chinese telecom giant Huawei, issued an open letter describing how she experienced fear, pain, disappointment, helplessness, torment and acceptance of the unknown.

She wrote at length about the support she received from her colleagues, about friendly people at a courthouse in Vancouver and about “numerous” Chinese online users who expressed their trust.

Her letter, posted Monday, was not well received on the Chinese internet, where Meng is known – in a term meant to be endearing – as “princess” because she is a daughter of Huawei’s founder, Ren Zhengfei.

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On the Twitter-like social media platform Weibo, many users posted the numbers 985, 996, 251 and 404 in the comment section below her letter. They were slyly referring to a former Huawei employee who graduated from one of the country’s top universities in a program code-named 985, worked from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week and was jailed for 251 days after he demanded severance pay when his contract was not renewed.

His story went viral in China, generating angry responses online. That resulted in 404 error messages as articles and comments were deleted, a sign of China’s censors at work.

The former employee, Li Hongyuan, was eventually released from jail with no charges and received $15,000 in government compensation last week. He shared his story online last week and that’s when the hit to Huawei’s reputation began.

“One enjoyed a sunny Canadian mansion while the other enjoyed the cold and damp detention cell in Shenzhen,” Jiang Feng, a psychologist, commented on the Quora-like question-and-answer site Zhihu. Meng has been under house arrest in a six-bedroom home, awaiting potential extradition to the United States on charges that she conspired to defraud banks about Huawei’s relationship with an Iranian company.

The anger directed toward Meng reflected an uneasy moment for both Huawei and China’s middle-class professionals. In the past year, Huawei had been fending off claims by the U.S. government that it is secretive and unreliable and that it spies for Beijing, an allegation the company has repeatedly denied.

In China, however, Huawei has been considered the crown jewel of the country’s tech industry and has enjoyed tremendous goodwill. Many Chinese proudly abandoned their iPhones for Huawei phones. But the backlash to the jailing of a long-time employee after a labour dispute has made it clear that people in China are starting to sour on the company.

The anger on social media was also indicative of new insecurity among members of China’s middle class, who have never experienced an economic downturn and have always thought they had more protections than lower-paid migrant workers. People said they could see themselves in Li.

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“Many middle-class Chinese used to believe that if they went to good schools, worked hard and cared little about the current affairs they would be able to realize their Chinese dreams,” a blogger wrote on Weibo. “Now their dreams are in tatters.”

Huawei declined to comment on the public response.

Li, a Huawei employee for 12 years, negotiated a $48,000 severance package in March 2018, according to interviews he gave to Chinese media outlets. But he did not get an end-of-the-year bonus that he said had been promised to him. He sued Huawei in November last year.

A month later, he was detained in Shenzhen and accused of leaking commercial secrets. He was officially arrested in January on an extortion accusation. But he was released in August with no charges. He did not respond to interview requests.

Huawei insisted in a statement that it had done nothing wrong and challenged Li to prove that he had been treated unfairly.

“Huawei has the right, and in fact a duty, to report the facts of any suspected illegal conduct to authorities. We respect the decisions made by the authorities,” the statement said. “If Li Hongyuan believes that he has suffered damages or that his rights have been infringed, we support his right to seek satisfaction through legal means, up to and including lawsuit against Huawei.”

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Online commentators called the statement “arrogant” and “cold blooded.” “The elephant stepped on you, but you can step back on it,” one popular WeChat article said. “What a response of justice!”

Jiang Jingjing, a blogger, criticized Huawei for trampling on its employees’ rights with its tough performance evaluation system and legal firepower. “Once a company becomes a cold, dehumanized grinding machine, what’s the point for it to exist?” he wrote.

In some ways, new criticism of Huawei harks back to the early days of the company. Huawei cultivated an aggressive “wolf culture” that encouraged its employees to work extremely hard.

New employees would get a mattress when they joined because everyone was expected to work late and often sleep in the office. Over a decade ago, a series of employee deaths drew harsh scrutiny of the company. An investigative report by a news weekly counted six unnatural deaths in two years, including four suicides.

Since then, especially after the United States started a global campaign to try to stop its allies from using Huawei’s next-generation wireless technology, known as 5G, Huawei has become a symbol of China’s technology prowess and U.S. attempts to keep China down.

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After Meng’s arrest, there was an outpouring of support for Huawei. In the most recent quarter, Huawei’s smartphone sales in China grew 66% from a year earlier. Sales for Apple and most of Huawei’s domestic competitors declined, according to the research firm Canalys.

Now many people are talking about boycotting Huawei products. Images of a pair of Huawei-branded handcuffs are circulating online as a new, smart-fitness wristband. One of the “bands” is called the “free meal and accommodation version,” referring to jail life.

Tang Ting, a public relations executive, posted on his WeChat social media timeline that the outrage could cause long-lasting damage for Huawei’s brand. Chinese companies think consumers respond only to freebies and discounts, he wrote, “but a very high percentage of the young generation care about values, too.”

In a sign that many middle-class professionals are worried that what happened to Li could happen to them, online users circulated articles about jail life, especially in the Longgang detention centre in Shenzhen, where Li spent more than eight months. Huawei is based in Shenzhen’s Longgang district.

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Some online users are circulating a three-part blog post by a programmer who spent over a year in the detention centre for working on gaming and gambling software. Gambling is illegal in China. The blogger wrote in detail what it was like to live in a 355-square-foot cell with 55 people in tropical weather – what they ate, wore and did every day.

Many Chinese are especially outraged by the degree to which news coverage and online responses have been censored. They say they feel helpless because they cannot criticize the government. Now they feel they are also not able to criticize a giant corporation.

One of the Weibo posts of Meng’s letter received 1,400 comments. Many simply said 251, the number of days Li was detained. Fewer than 10 comments, sympathetic ones, are still visible to the public.

“A company that’s too big to criticize is even scarier than a company that’s too big to fail,” Nie Huihua, an economics professor at Renmin University in Beijing, told the news site Jiemian on Tuesday.

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