Life at Huawei: Trains, European Design, and Lunch Naps

Earlier this month, the Trump administration dubbed Huawei a national security threat , impelling Google and other US tech companies to cut off business ties. The move followed growing fears that its products could contain backdoors for the Chinese government, as well as a string of indictments charging Huawei with misleading banks about violating Iran sanctions and stealing intellectual property from T-Mobile.

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But if you assume Huawei wouldn't want more attention than it's already getting, think again. In a seeming bid to prove it has nothing to hide, the company, which made $100 billion in revenue last year, has thrown open the doors to its headquarters and production facility in southern China, allowing journalists and photographers to come take a look. Kevin Frayer spent five days there in April documenting it up close.

"Huawei has always been a bit mysterious to me," Frayer says. "I was curious to see if it was just like every other tech company."

On the surface, it wasn't: Huawei's new $1.4 billion Ox Horn production facility in Dongguan, where workers make smartphones and 5G equipment, looks more like medieval Europe than Silicon Valley. A faux Paris, a miniature Heidelberg, and 10 other ersatz cities fill 296 immaculately gardened acres intended to host some 30,000 workers. There are neoclassical office buildings, bubbling fountains, and red trolley cars brought in from Switzerland. "When you imagine high tech, you expect modern design and cutting edge," Frayer says. "But it kind of works in its own way."

Frayer also visited Huawei's comparatively boring but equally huge headquarters 31 miles away in Shenzhen. A couple staff members showed him the highlights at both campuses, from the fluorescent-lit corridors of the cybersecurity lab to the sterile floor of the production line, where rubber-gloved and white-smocked employees assemble parts. But he also spent hours just roaming around waiting for something interesting to happen, like the lunch rush, when dozens of subsidized cafeterias feed thousands of workers in half an hour—"from empty to full to empty in minutes," he says. Afterward, everyone took an hour to chill out, dozing at their cubicles or watching shows on their smartphones with the lights dimmed, according to Chinese custom.

But at its core, the work culture at Huawei seemed the same to Frayer as at any massive tech company. People hunched over computers, worked out at the company gym, and often looked tired during long commutes home. "It's hard to truly know what it's like to work there, but in general, people seemed pretty connected to what they are doing and happy to be doing it for Huawei," he says. "The jobs are coveted and apparently pay well for highly skilled workers. A lot of them have gone to school overseas or at the elite universities in China."

That doesn't necessarily shed any light on the deeper workings at Huawei. But it does offer a fascinating glimpse into the daily grind of a Chinese telecommunications giant currently embroiled in a massive geopolitical conflict.

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