ATHENS – In an effort to curry favor in the European Union amid fears it was a state-backed spyware operator, the Chinese telecom-equipment company Huawei reached out to Greek officials, including with smart watches.
In a report, The New York Times – citing emails obtained – said company officials exchanged messages about holding a meeting with a “friend” and an “adviser” in Greece, contacts said to be Greek government advisors not named.
The Greek officials were reportedly going to give the company a document outlining New Democracy government contracts and “first priority projects” that Huawei might be interested in doing in Greece.
Huawei managers discussed giving the advisers a Huawei Mate XS smartphone, the company’s GT 2 smartwatch and wine, according to internal text messages and other documents reviewed by the newspaper.
The plans are “strictly confidential among us,” a Huawei manager wrote in a group chat named after Greece’s Digital Ministry, it was revealed as one of more than 120 messages given the newspaper by a source working for another European government, who wasn’t named.
The newspaper said they showed how Huawei, fighting back attempts by critics to shut it out of the European Union, tied itself especially to Greece – China being an important partner, its management firm COSCO running the port of Piraeus.
The report said the messages” offer a rare look at how Huawei tried to cultivate relationships with high-ranking figures in Greece, a small but important country for the company, and pushed the limits of Greek rules that restrict gifts to civil servants and government ministers.”
Huawei officials talked about giving gadgets to a Greek minister and his son, devices to police and immigration officials and providing transportation for Greek regulars to a 2021 conference in the United Arab Emirates.
The messages did not say whether the gifts were ultimately delivered or if deals for the priority projects were signed but the story later said that Huawei had been targeting New Democracy Vice-President and Development and Investment Minister Adonis Georgiadis for years to build a cozy relationship.
A Huawei manager in Greece, Theo Tamvakidis said the company was constantly “trying to convince people we are not a threat to society, that we are not a public menace,” as it sought 5G cellular contracts in the bloc.
The communications, the paper said, indicated that Huawei was eager to help Greek government officials with their personal technology and that in July 2021 Tamvakidis rushed to find a replacement device for an unnamed immigration official who had contacted him about a broken screen on a Mate X, a foldable smartphone that costs more than 2,000 euros ($2,121) retail.
It was said that Huawei had given to him as “present” according to the messages, in one of which Tamvakidis wrote that, “He uses it only for making photos with his Huawei laptop we gave him.” The official wasn’t identified.
IN THE LOBBY
It’s unlawful in Greece for those government officials to receive gifts from companies or people in the private sector in exchange for favors or considered linked to official duties, Stefanos Loukopoulos, Director of Vouliwatch, a government watchdog group in Athens, told the paper.
“Huawei conducts business ethically and with integrity, and complies with all applicable laws and regulations in every country and region in which we operate,” the company said in a statement.
Pavlos Marinakis, a Greek government spokesman, said Huawei’s technology had a limited presence in the country’s new telecom networks. “There has never been, whatsoever, any direct or indirect influence by said company in government policy decisions, agreements and/or contracts,” he said in an email.
The U.S. government has restricted the use of Huawei equipment and cut the company off from access to certain American technology and lobbied allies in Europe to prohibit using the company’s equipment.
“Greece is a prime example of the mixed success of the American lobbying campaign. It has not prohibited Huawei’s products outright, and the company has battled to keep its hard-won hold in the country,” the paper said.
The Chinese company has managed to keep close to government officials though, in Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ all-out campaign to lure more foreign investors as he has accelerated an economic recovery and easily won re-election.
It appeared Huawei had found a friend in Georgiadis, an outspoken and often provocative minister known for lashing out at New Democracy rivals and being a TV pitchman of history books and telemarketer, at odds with his high position.
In 2020, when then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo led a U.S. delegation to Greece to complete a technology and science agreement between the countries, Huawei executives discussed having someone present during the negotiations to help remove references to cybersecurity and Chinese companies.
“We discussed with Adonis and took it out,” Tamvakidis wrote to a colleague several months after the summit, in reference to Georgiadis, although the paper said whether the minister tilted the talks in Huawei’s favor was unclear.
In 2020, company executives in Greece discussed a letter circulated by European Parliament members that called for a ban of Huawei products. Jacky Chen, a senior executive in the region, asked Tamvakidis to speak with Eva Kaili and Maria Spyraki, two Greek members of the European Parliament.
“Ask for support,” Mr. Chen said in a message. “Don’t make Huawei trouble in E.U. level if possible.” Tamvakidis responded, “I think I can still convince her,” referring to Kaili and describing her as a friend he had known for years.
It’s unclear if Huawei spoke to the two policymakers. Kaili was arrested in 2022 year as part of a corruption scandal, accused of accepting bribes from Qatar, which she denied and Spyraki was probed for how she spent allowances.
THE CHINA SYNDROME
Greece had been an ally of China after that country made investments in Greece – especially Piraeus where COSCO holds a major stake – aid coming just ahead of Greece needing three international bailouts of 326 billion euros ($345.9 billion.)
“The country has also taken a contradictory stance on Huawei. It has not banned the firm’s products, but the government and businesses in the country have tried distancing themselves from the Chinese company, the report said.
In 2020, Greece joined the Clean Networks initiative, a voluntary and nonbinding agreement to avoid using technology from authoritarian governments and Greece’s three largest wireless network operators have also turned more to Huawei’s rivals, Ericsson and Nokia, to build new 5G networks.
But Huawei’s sales in Greece rose 56 percent in 2022 to 258 million euros ($273.75 millions) said Greek regulatory filings and the company provided technology for the Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation, the state-owned TV and radio broadcaster and the public health care service and the port of Piraeus.
Huawei employees discussed how Georgiadis got devices from the company while working as a government official even as he posted pictures of his visits to Huawei’s offices and events on social media.
The nonbinding 2020 agreement signed by Pompeo and Greek officials, which was aimed at strengthening tech and scientific collaboration, did not ultimately mention cybersecurity or Chinese companies, the paper said.
Georgiadis said he was not involved in specifics of the tech-science agreement and had no communication with Huawei before it was signed and had been childhood friends with Tamvakidis.
Georgiadis said he never accepted gifts from Huawei, but bought “two or three” devices for family members with retail receipts but said he wouldn’t provide them as proof he had paid for them.
“I never had, or still have, no special relationship with that company,” he said in an email. “No agreement, investment, contract, concession or project was rendered to Huawei during my term of office.”
Tamvakidis said he did not recall the specifics of the 2020 agreement but said Huawei might have been “informed that nothing was inside that would be of danger.” He did not say who had provided that information.
Tamvakidis said that he had helped facilitate Huawei devices for Mr. Georgiadis, including for a family member, but they weren’t offered freed and thate sales were invoiced – but he wouldn’t provide copies either.
But he said that government officials sometimes received devices before they were publicly released or at discounted prices, he said, giving them an inside advantage without explaining why they then wouldn’t be favorable to Huawei.
“Adonis needs two more watches. GT Pro. He loved it,” Tamvakidis wrote in October 2020. Later that month, Georgiadis was photographed wearing what appeared to be a Huawei watch.
In a 2021 exchange, Huawei employees discussed replacing a broken phone for Georgiadis’s son. “Adonis is a special case,” Tamvakidis wrote.