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As Trump and Xi Talk Trade, Huawei Will Loom Large

DONGGUAN, China — President Trump and China’s leader, Xi Jinping, are expected to try again to resolve their tariff war when they meet in Japan on Saturday.

First, they will need to figure out what to do about Huawei.

The Trump administration has squeezed the Chinese technology giant with nearly the full might of the United States government, choking off the firm’s access to vital American suppliers, barring it from the country’s telecom market and filing sweeping criminal charges against it.

Though Washington officials say those moves arose from national security concerns and are separate from the trade fight, few expect China to accept a deal to lift punishing tariffs that does not include relief for its biggest, most internationally successful tech firm.

“It is almost impossible for the Chinese to agree to almost anything while the Huawei action looms,” said Samm Sacks, a China expert at the think tank New America. “Even if this is walked back, the Chinese fundamentally mistrust this administration. At this point, there’s no walking back this mistrust.”

Beijing on Thursday again called on Washington to end its restrictions on Huawei, and Chinese officials have complained about the harm they said the administration’s moves against Chinese firms had done.

“We hope, in the spirit of free trade and the principles of W.T.O., that the U.S. will remove these inappropriate unilateral measures against Chinese companies,” said Wang Shouwen, China’s vice minister of commerce, referring to the World Trade Organization, earlier this week. “This is good for both sides.”

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CreditWu Hong/EPA, via Shutterstock

Washington’s blunt-force approach to stymieing China’s technological aspirations has split the business world, forcing tech firms on both sides of the Pacific to adapt at warp speed. Restricted from selling to Huawei, Silicon Valley is slashing revenue forecasts, although some firms have resumed certain sales that they do not believe are covered by Washington’s ban. American businesses of all kinds are bracing for retaliation from Beijing.

Huawei has swung into what employees call “war mode” to survive Washington’s fusillade. At the company’s campuses in the southern Chinese cities of Dongguan and Shenzhen, projects have been accelerated and working hours have ballooned, according to half a dozen Huawei workers who requested anonymity to discuss internal company matters.

Even the Coca-Cola that gives employees their midafternoon sugar kick now comes in cans custom-printed with pump-up messages. One can pairs the image of a raised fist with the words “In the frenzy of the fight, say no to vacation days.”

Mr. Trump has dangled the possibility of easing up on the company, saying last month that “it’s possible that Huawei even would be included in some kind of a trade deal.”

But any clemency for Huawei would face pushback in Washington. Hawkish officials and lawmakers see technology as an important front in a generational threat posed by China’s rise. And they see Huawei as the apex of all that is threatening about that rise.

Their message has been heard clearly in Beijing, even if Washington eventually dials back some of its restrictions on the company.

“The damage is certainly done, from Beijing’s perspective,” Ms. Sacks said. “I think we are in a new world now. And to the extent that there is some deal to be made, I don’t think it changes this new reality.”

Washington has gone after Huawei on multiple fronts in the past year. The Justice Department in January filed criminal charges against the company, related to alleged violations of sanctions against Iran. Huawei denies wrongdoing and says its products do not threaten any nation’s security — another allegation made by American officials, who say the company could spy on China’s behalf.

After trade talks went off the rails last month, the Commerce Department ordered what was once seen as the nuclear option against Huawei: No more parts and equipment could be purchased from American suppliers without special waivers.

Last week, the department gave the same treatment to one of China’s leading makers of supercomputers. The Trump administration has also set other Chinese firms, including the surveillance giant Hikvision, in its sights.

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CreditHector Retamal/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In response, China’s Ministry of Commerce has threatened to make a list of “unreliable” companies and people who could be punished for disrupting Chinese supply chains. Chinese officials have echoed the threat in meetings with American tech companies. Beijing has also proposed new cybersecurity regulations that experts say could impair the operations of foreign companies in China.

Still, Arthur Kroeber, a founding partner at the research firm Gavekal, said China would hurt itself as much as it hurt the United States if it took more steps to disconnect itself from the global economy.

“China’s only hope of influencing U.S. policy in a more positive (from its standpoint) direction is to keep the business community as some kind of an ally,” Mr. Kroeber wrote in an email. “This limits its ability to target U.S. firms for retaliation.”

Huawei’s leaders do not seem to believe that China and the United States are heading for a permanent divorce.

At an event last week, the firm’s founder and chief executive, Ren Zhengfei, predicted that business would be tough for the next two years. But he said he hoped to resume working with American partners in the not-too-distant future.

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CreditAly Song/Reuters

“We are not afraid of using American components,” Mr. Ren said. “We are not afraid of working with any American people.”

The company appears to understand that its fate is entwined with larger political discussions, which it can influence only indirectly. Huawei officials have avoided high-level contact with Washington ahead of this week’s Group of 20 meeting in Osaka, Japan, according to a person familiar with the company’s activities who was not authorized to speak with the press.

Huawei has spent only $ 55,000 this year on lobbying in Washington, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. By comparison, ZTE, the Chinese hardware maker that the Trump administration nearly drove out of business last year, has spent nearly $ 1.4 million.

ZTE’s near-death experience drove Huawei to begin planning for similar contingencies. The company says, for instance, that it has been developing its own operating system to replace Google’s Android in Huawei handsets.

Such efforts have been redoubled in the past month. Huawei employees are being plied with round-the-clock meals and snacks. Buses and cars ferry workers home after days that routinely end, in many departments, after 11 p.m. or midnight.

Office walls have been adorned with motivational slogans. “We are in the first battle, victory is ours,” one goes. Another says, “The ace forces are dispatched, the mission must be completed.”

China’s government has helped to keep Huawei afloat. The company had been poised to become a major provider of equipment for 5G, the next generation of mobile internet. That is why some industry observers believe Washington’s restrictions on Huawei will delay the construction of 5G networks in China and around the world.

But a few weeks ago, China began issuing commercial 5G licenses to mobile carriers, ahead of the schedule that many observers had expected. Analysts at J.P. Morgan called the move an attempt “by the government to assure the world about China’s capability to push forward 5G.” China’s state-run telecom operators have also signed agreements to buy 5G gear from Huawei.

“They can survive,” Xiaomeng Lu of Access Partnership, a policy consulting firm, said of Huawei. The company will just have to stand more firmly on China’s side of the increasingly “splintered” world of tech, Ms. Lu said. “The U.S. only picks suppliers they trust, and China will pick suppliers they trust.”

Huawei’s leaders have long cultivated an aggressive “wolf culture” at the firm, one that celebrates individual dedication and team conquest. Recently, even mundane, administrative posts on the company’s social media pages have been studded with wartime language.

One post on the messaging app WeChat announced that cafeteria hours had been extended at Huawei’s campuses in Dongguan. It ended by pledging the company’s support to its employees:

The battle has begun,
As the bugle sounds the charge,
We will go forth hand in hand
To escort the warriors!

Paul Mozur contributed reporting from Shanghai. Carolyn Zhang and Luz Ding contributed research.

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