Failed by the system but support from the public
Li Hongyuan, an average 35-year-old Chinese man, has become a symbol of the unfairness in Chinese society, but also of perseverance in the fight for justice. Court documents posted at the end of November on Chinese social media about Li Hongyuan’s case became overnight one of the most discussed topics in China. Mr. Li is a former employee of the Chinese telecom corporation Huawei. After working for them over 13 years he left the company with a severance package, however he did not receive a bonus that he said he was due. Mr. Li decided to sue Huawei for the unpaid monies, but shortly after was arrested in Shenzhen and jailed for 251 days. The company accused him of extortion, but due to insufficient evidence he as finally released and rewarded compensation of 100,000 CNY (14,206.77 USD) by the government.
Li Hongyuan’s case provoked outrage online with many Weibo users supporting his cause. The case stands in stark contrast to the open letter of Meng Wanzhou, daughter of Huawei’s founder Ren Zhengfei, which she published on the anniversary of her arrested in Canada on December 1, 2018. She describes how she experienced “fear, pain, disappointment, helplessness, torment and struggle”. The response in social media was unsympathetic with users describing her as acting “like a princess”.
Mr. Li has now become an icon for the struggle in Chinese society: a middle-class man who has put a lot of effort to attend a good university, cared little about current affairs, worked hard but in the end was persecuted by his employer and failed by the system. The government removed posts and comments about Li’s case, leading to even greater anger and prompting users to find creative ways around the censor. “985 996 251 035 404” has become the new “code” phrase in China: 985 refers to graduating from one of the top universities under an education program called 985; 996 refers to working from 9am to 9pm, six days a week; 251 is the number of days Li Hongyuan was detained; 35 is his age and 404 refers to the error message as articles and comments are deleted by the government.
People in China are now talking about boycotting Huawei products, just as the company is having trouble with the 5G debate in Europe and is dealing with allegations of its involvement in the Xinjiang region. With pressure from abroad, Huawei is relying on support at home in China, both from the state and the general population. The company, which had become a symbol of national pride, with 42 percent of the largest smartphone market in the world, is not used to experiencing a backlash from Chinese society.