Home Brussels Huawei’s under-the-radar Brussels blitz

Huawei’s under-the-radar Brussels blitz

by editor

This is part two of a series on undercover EU lobbying. Read part one here.

When Huawei needed a friend in Brussels, it found one in EU Reporter.

As the geopolitical winds began to turn against it last year, the Chinese telecommunications giant wanted to rehabilitate its reputation in the halls of power in the European Union. It turned to an outlet with a long association with Beijing and a business model that allows clients to publish pay-for-play lobbying while making it look like independent news.

Starting in February 2020, EU Reporter — a Brussels-based website that lists Huawei as a client on its marketing material — participated in a 12-month lobbying push in favor of the embattled Chinese company.

The campaign included anonymous news articles that were taken almost word-for-word from Huawei’s press releases; a virtual event that promoted its views on political battles around so-called 5G mobile technology; and opinion articles authored by senior company executives that were not disclosed as paid-for posts.

The coverage — which was promoted by Huawei’s social media channels and submitted by the company’s consultancies to the U.S. government as part of an official lobbying filing — was overwhelmingly favorable to the Chinese firm at a time of mounting concerns across the West about its participation in key telecom infrastructure projects across the 27-country bloc.

Other Brussels-based outlets, including POLITICO, publish clearly-labeled sponsored content from companies or governments looking to influence EU officials. What makes EU Reporter’s coverage different is the lack of disclosure.

Though the media organization’s marketing material says it allows clients to lobby EU policymaking via its website, the 12-month Huawei campaign was, with just a few exceptions, presented as independent news. During that period, the vast majority of EU Reporter’s coverage on Huawei made no mention of the commercial relationship between the two companies. Only a small minority of articles carried disclaimers stating that they were paid for by the Chinese telecom giant.

EU Reporter’s practices do not break Belgian law or the EU’s own transparency lobbying guidelines. But they do violate media industry standards aimed at ensuring readers can distinguish between independent journalism and content being pushed by commercial or political interests.

“There are two fundamental problems,” said Michiel van Hulten, director of Transparency International EU, a nonprofit group that campaigns for greater openness around political lobbying. “One, Brussels simply has not kept up in the development of lobbying. The second is that there’s no enforcement of the current rules.”

In response, Colin Stevens, EU Reporter’s owner, confirmed to POLITICO that Huawei had been a client and had paid for coverage.

“Our task was to give coverage to, and highlight, the 5G debate,” he said in a statement, rejecting claims that EU Reporter published anonymous articles. “This included using press releases and marketing material from Huawei and other companies involved in the 5G rollout.”

Huawei did not respond to questions about its relationship with EU Reporter. A spokesman said the company did not disclose details about its partnership, but that it no longer worked with the site.

“We work with different media organizations, and others, regularly in many ways, as indeed we do with POLITICO,” a Huawei spokesman said in a statement.

Embracing China

For EU Reporter, the Huawei campaign came after a growing relationship with the Chinese Communist Party.

When Stevens, a former British regional television executive, took over the website in 2010, it was just one of many media organizations plying its trade reporting on EU affairs from the Belgian capital. It quickly expanded to offer news in scores of languages — mostly via Google’s auto-translation services — and promoted itself on a par with The New York Times and Guardian for its coverage of European current events.

As of 2020, it had fallen out of the top 15 most influential news outlets and social media brands in the so-called Brussels bubble, according to polling from BCW Brussels and Savanta ComRes.

Within a few years of taking over EU Reporter, Stevens began to blur the lines between independent journalism and providing a platform for political and commercial interests.

The outlet’s ties to Beijing became official after EU Reporter signed a content-sharing deal with the People’s Daily of China, the country’s largest government-owned newspaper group, in late 2015. The pact involved running each other’s stories, as well as developing “close working relationships” between the organizations, according to EU Reporter’s announcement of the agreement. That relationship is still in place.

Over the last five years, the EU-focused outlet has published hundreds of articles from the Chinese government-backed organization on everything from Beijing’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic to its push into renewable energy. The most-recent report — about Beijing’s digital trade policies in Asia — was authored in December 2020.

“The highlight of the visit was taking tea in the Great Hall of the People with Liu Yunshan, the number 5 in the Chinese politburo,” Stevens said in a statement at the time about his trip to Beijing to finalize the deal.

The bespectacled British expat, who moved to Brussels in the late 1990s and speaks with a soft Welsh accent, has continued to foster ties with China, serving as an adviser to the New Silk Road Institute, a think-tank in The Netherlands whose objective is to build connections around Beijing’s Belt and Road investment project. Stevens also told POLITICO that EU Reporter was part of the Belt and Road News Network, a Chinese government-sponsored initiative to promote news around its flagship foreign policy.

After a British regulator, Ofcom, pulled the license for the Beijing-backed broadcaster CGTN, to operate in the U.K., the government-sponsored media outlet praised Press Club Brussels Europe, where Stevens is president, for publishing its rebuttal on the venue’s website. Stevens said his role at the press club was “honorific” and entailed overseeing its regular board meetings.

“It is worth noting that after Ofcom revoked CGTN’s license to broadcast in the U.K. in early February, Press Club Brussels Europe also published a statement of CGTN on its website immediately,” the Chinese state broadcaster said.

Hello, Huawei

EU Reporter listed Huawei as a client in its marketing material from February 2020, just as the political heat around the company began to mount. That relationship ended in early 2021, according to Huawei and Stevens.

As the world’s largest producer of 5G equipment, the Chinese company had spent the previous decade expanding onto the global stage — bringing it head to head with European rivals, Ericsson and Nokia. By early 2020, it had secured a near 30 percent annual rise in its 5G telecom business, to 90 signed deals, the most of any telecom equipment maker. Almost all of those contracts came from European clients.

The announcement set off alarm bells across Western capitals.

Policymakers began to fret they were potentially handing the keys to domestic mobile networks — with the power to surveil Western citizens — to an aggressive foreign power. The company denies any wrongdoing or that it had ties with the Chinese Communist Party.

That caution, particularly among Western security agencies, began to pick up steam across the EU in March 2020 after Washington dialed up pressure to convince European officials to ban Huawei equipment — a tactic that eventually proved successful.

“It looked like they were going to run the table,” said Keith Krach, the former U.S. undersecretary of State who led the Donald Trump administration’s effort to convince other countries to drop Huawei from their mobile networks. “It was too risky to put a surveillance state in your 5G network.”

As the telecom giant struggled to push back against these growing political headwinds, EU Reporter promoted a favorable picture of the firm via online articles which were presented as independent journalism. Abraham Liu, Huawei’s top EU lobbyist, became a fixture on the site — quoted on everything from Huawei’s support for Europe Day to cheerleading the company’s investment in innovation.

Throughout the political backlash, the outlet published Huawei press releases as news articles authored by an unnamed “technology correspondent’ without referencing its commercial relationship with the company. It also highlighted the Chinese telecom giant’s investment across Europe without attributing the content as paid-for sponsorship.

In late December, an article by Liu, Huawei’s lobbyist, warning against politicizing Europe’s roll-out of its 5G networks appeared on POLITICO as clearly labeled sponsored content. The same article appeared on EU Reporter with no mention of a commercial tie to the website.

In response, Stevens said that until January 2021, EU Reporter’s policy was not to label corporate press releases that appeared on its site as sponsored marketing material. In a previous statement, he said that as of January 2020, all articles published on the site began to carry the names of the individual who had written them, the source of the material and whether the posts were sponsored.

POLITICO, however, found an article dated February 2021 that was bylined as “technology correspondent,” but simply repeated a Huawei press release.

The company did not respond to questions about these articles. “We are continually reviewing and exploring our partnerships and our opportunities to contribute positively to European society,” a spokesman said in a statement.

Belgian blitz

EU Reporter’s efforts to promote Huawei stepped up a gear in late 2020.

The timing coincided with the conclusion of a public consultation about Belgium’s 5G security proposals that would significantly reduce the telecom giant’s involvement in the country’s upcoming mobile network upgrade — deals worth, collectively, billions of euros.

Stevens and his media outlet published a flurry of articles that were posted on EU Reporter and often recycled on other sites run by Stevens like london-globe.com and toplinenews.eu

The coverage criticized the Belgian government’s anti-Huawei stance; called Belgium’s policymaking opaque; and claimed that banning specific telecom equipment makers would raise prices for consumers.

“Many in the Belgian business community believe this to be a cynical media manipulation tactic, to slip in a public consultation over a Christmas holiday period in the middle of a COVID-19 crisis, when most business is closed, and public and media attention are focused elsewhere,” Stevens wrote in Toplinenews in December, 2020. The byline was subsequently changed to “editor.” Stevens said the change may have occurred when the editor altered the article.

The same article — entitled “If the Belgian government excludes specific suppliers, who will pay for it?” — also ran on EU Reporter under the byline, Louis Auge, a journalist whose name only appears to be linked to the Brussels-based media outlet. Two open-source intelligence analysts, who reviewed POLITICO’s findings, said Auge could be a pseudonym used by EU Reporter employees as no reference to the journalist could be traced to other news organizations.

Requests for comment from Auge went unanswered.

Just before the end of 2020, EU Reporter also held an online event — streamed live over YouTube and moderated by Stevens — about Belgium’s 5G security proposals that was scathing in its analysis of the country’s telecom plans. Among the panelists were Yvan Desmedt, a partner at the law firm Jones Day, which has provided legal counsel to the Chinese company. In the 45-minute event, Desmedt did not disclose his firm’s affiliations to Huawei.

Another panelist from that event, who spoke to POLITICO on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of their involvement, said the discussion primarily focused on attacking the EU’s policy, which had begun to downplay Huawei’s role in mobile networks, and they felt the event did not offer a neutral platform for the discussion.

Desmedt, the Jones Day lawyer, did not respond to requests for comment. Huawei did not answer POLITICO’s questions about the event. EU Reporter’s Stevens said that he was unaware of Jones Days’ connections to Huawei. “He was recommended to us as an expert in the field,” Stevens said.

Promoting pro-Huawei articles

EU Reporter may have been coy about its relationship with Huawei. But the Chinese company was eager to promote the website’s coverage.

Just days before the end of the Belgian public consultation in late December, a cluster of 14 fake Twitter accounts portraying themselves as locals began sharing the outlet’s pro-Huawei content and online event widely on the social media platform. According to an analysis by Graphika, a cybersecurity firm that specializes in online influence campaigns, the accounts used false profile images created using artificial intelligence tools and amplified the content produced by EU Reporter and its affiliated sites.

Official Huawei social media accounts, including the company’s main handle for its European operations and several high-profile regional executives, jumped at the chance to share the articles. In total, the social media content was reposted hundreds of times just as Belgian policymakers were deciding Huawei’s fate.

Graphika could not determine who was behind the online campaign, which coincided with Huawei’s commercial relationship with EU Reporter. But Twitter users connected to the Chinese telecom giant, including the company’s head of public affairs and its president of strategy marketing, were by far the largest amplifiers of the pro-Huawei content, which had direct ties to EU Reporter’s influence campaign on behalf of the Chinese telecom giant.

“It is clear that these fake accounts’ most important amplification came from Twitter accounts that belong to senior Huawei executives in Western Europe, including three accounts that are verified,” the Graphika researchers concluded.

Stevens said his site had no involvement in this operation and when they learned EU Reporter’s content was being promoted in this way, he severed ties with Huawei. The company did not respond to questions about whether it was involved in the social media campaign.

“Huawei has a clear social media policy,” said the company’s spokesman. “We continually update and review our internal processes to ensure that our values of openness, honesty and transparency are always followed.”

It wasn’t the last time Huawei would use the site’s content for help with national governments.

In filings to the U.S. government as part of required disclosers when registering as a foreign lobbyists, consultancies working on behalf of Huawei submitted EU Reporter content for some of their bona fides, according to POLITICO’s review of U.S. Department of Justice data.

One article, dated June 3, 2020 and reshared by Huawei’s American Twitter handle, highlighted how the company’s artificial intelligence tools could help EU farmers. The byline read: “EU Reporter Correspondent,” and solely quoted Abraham Liu, Huawei’s top EU lobbyist. Unlike news coverage from other news outlets, it provided direct links to the company’s homepage and Twitter account.

The filings made no mention of commercial ties between Huawei and EU Reporter.

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