BRUSSELS — Polish authorities detained an employee of Chinese tech giant Huawei and charged him with spying on behalf of China, amid growing global concerns that the company is tied to Chinese intelligence agencies, Polish authorities said Friday.
U.S. officials have long warned that the technology sold by Huawei — which varies from the infrastructure that powers cellular networks to computers and phones — might be mobilized by the Chinese government to spy on people across the world. The company has defended itself in part by pointing to the absence of formal, public evidence of such activities.
Huawei has sought to help develop a new generation of high-speed European cellular networks, but Western intelligence agencies have slowed its expansion efforts. Some countries have banned public purchases of Huawei technology, and many Western intelligence agencies have offered blunt assessments that the company was acting as an arm of China’s spy apparatus.
Last month, Germany’s Deutsche Telekom said it would reevaluate its use of Huawei technology after unveiling its first 5G high-speed network based on equipment from the Chinese manufacturer. Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis ordered his office to stop using Huawei phones. And a top European Union official for digital issues, European Commission Vice President Andrus Ansip, said that “we have to be worried” about Huawei.
Poland has been more open than other countries to partnering with Huawei, and last year its government said it would collaborate with the company in developing a next-generation high-speed 5G cellular network for the country.
The arrests come a month after Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, was detained in Canada at the U.S. government’s request on charges related to violating sanctions against Iran. Meng is the daughter of the company’s founder, and her detention has set off a diplomatic battle, as well as fierce condemnations from the Chinese government.
Huawei was founded in southern China in the late 1980s by a former military officer, Ren Zhengfei, and rode two decades of unprecedented economic growth to become one of the country’s largest privately held companies.
Today, it is the largest supplier of the network equipment used by phone and Internet, and it competes with Apple in terms of cellphone sales. Its reach is vast: The company has 170,000 employees in 170 countries.
At home, Huawei is seen as a symbol of China’s economic transformation, of how far the country has come — and of its soaring ambitions to become a hub for tech manufacturing and innovation. But it is not a household name in the United States, largely because U.S. lawmakers have worked to limit its U.S. business and warned consumers against its phones.
The company strongly denies any wrongdoing, as does the Chinese government.
Poland’s counterintelligence agency searched Huawei’s Polish offices Tuesday, seizing documents and electronics. The agency also searched the house of the company’s employee, a Chinese national, said Stanislaw Zaryn, a spokesman for the Polish special services coordinator.
The Polish citizen who was detained alongside the Huawei employee once worked for a Polish intelligence agency and now works for Orange, a European cellular carrier, Poland’s state broadcaster reported.
He was “a pretty high manager in many public institutions,” Zaryn said, declining to provide further details.
Zaryn said he was unsure about the role other countries might have played in helping Poland assemble evidence against the two men. Senior Polish officials told the state broadcaster they had planned the arrests for months.
Both men have denied the charges and have refused to cooperate with investigators, Zaryn said. The charges of espionage carry penalties of up to 10 years in prison. They will be in custody for three months as investigators continue to build their case.
“Huawei is aware of the situation, and we are looking into it,” the company said in a statement. “Huawei complies with all applicable laws and regulations in the countries where it operates, and we require every employee to abide by the laws and regulations in the countries where they are based.”
The Chinese suspect, identified only as Weijing W. by Polish authorities, studied Polish at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, then worked at the Chinese Consulate in Gdansk, in 2006. He has worked in Poland for Huawei since 2011, according to Polish state television.
While working for Poland’s domestic counterintelligence agency, the Polish suspect, identified as Piotr D., had access to key information about a secure government communications network used by high-level Polish officials, the broadcaster said.
Anna Fifield in Beijing and Emily Rauhala in Washington contributed to this report.