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In another time, under different circumstances, news that the telecommunications behemoth Huawei has been donating much-needed medical supplies to stressed-out Canadian hospitals would be greeted with unfettered gratitude.

Amid a global pandemic that has placed a terrible burden on hospital resources – most critically masks, face shields and disposable gloves worn by health-care workers – Huawei’s generosity is undoubtedly appreciated by those most in need of these products.

But it would be naive to imagine that this move by Huawei isn’t anything but a strategic public-relations exercise designed to engender goodwill in a country where it hopes to soon expand its business operations amid great concern.

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Huawei, of course, needs no introduction to most Canadians. It is currently awaiting a decision by the federal government on whether to allow the company to install its 5G technology in the country’s mobile networks. This comes amid a global debate about whether or not the firm can be trusted, given the control notoriously exerted by the Chinese government over the country’s private businesses. The United States, among other nations, has pressed Canada to keep Huawei away from this country’s 5G network, over concerns the company will use its equipment as an espionage tool on Beijing’s behalf.

And then there is the not-insignificant matter of Meng Wanzhou, the Huawei chief financial officer and daughter of company founder Ren Zhengfei. Ms. Meng was arrested in Vancouver on Dec. 1, 2018, after a New York court issued an arrest warrant related to allegations she oversaw business with Iran that violated U.S. sanctions against the country. Canada acted under the terms of its extradition agreement with the U.S.

This, in turn, ignited a huge diplomatic row. China retaliated by arresting two Canadians in their country on trumped-up spying charges. Today, the arrests of diplomat-on-leave Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor are widely viewed as a blatant kidnapping by a foreign power upset with Canada for honouring the extradition treaty it has with the United States.

And in many ways, this background barely scratches the surface of this story’s many complexities.

People wearing face masks walk past a Huawei store in Beijing on April 1, 2020.


But back to Huawei and the medical supplies. The company, of course, wants us to believe they are doing this out of the goodness of their hearts – that it is a genuine humanitarian gesture aimed at helping out Canada in a time of great need. The broader public likely doesn’t care much about the motivation here, nor do health-care workers, who are worried about potentially having to go to work wearing do-it-yourself face coverings.

We accept all that. But under no circumstances should Ottawa be prepared to allow Huawei to make this a gift. The federal government absolutely needs to pay back the technology company, for the cost of whatever their donations eventually amount to.

The decision before the federal government on Huawei’s future in Canada is too important to be sullied by a conflict of interest. If Ottawa ends up deciding to allow Huawei to be part of the country’s 5G network, then it would appear the company’s gesture paid off. Some might even perceive the donation of the medical supplies as a bribe disguised as a benevolent gift. Simply put, the politics around the Huawei 5G verdict are fraught already; they don’t need to be complicated further, which accepting millions of dollars in free medical wares from the company would undoubtedly do.

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This whole matter leaves a poor taste in my mouth anyway. Two Canadians are languishing in a Chinese jail for no reason, pawns in a high-stakes chess match between governments. Meanwhile, the person for whom they are paying this horrendous price, Ms. Meng, sits in her Vancouver mansion, free to move about town as she pleases with a monitoring bracelet on her ankle being the only indignity she must suffer.

If Huawei really wanted to improve its image in Canada, it could start by using its influence with the Chinese politburo to get Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor released. There should be no conversations about the future of Huawei in this country until that happens.

For now, however, the world has been put on hold. Countries around the globe continue to struggle to get the coronavirus under control and minimize the damage to the lives of citizens everywhere. In that fight, any and all help is appreciated.

But when the time is right, Ottawa needs to write a cheque to Huawei for the supplies they distributed in Canada. The decision the government makes on the company must come with no strings attached.

Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand says Canada is working hard behind the scenes on the increasingly challenging logistics of getting critical COVID-19 medical equipment to Canada from foreign countries. The Canadian Press

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