The  growing backlash against Huawei among western governments has touched a patriotic nerve at home, leading to a surge in the brand’s popularity among Chinese consumers and a sharp rise in the sales of its smartphones. 

Huawei garnered 40 per cent of responses from Chinese consumers who were asked what brand of smartphone they next intend to buy, up from 30 per cent both in November and a year ago, according to a late January survey conducted by FT Confidential Research. 

Although Huawei’s latest models have won plaudits from reviewers and consumers, sales agents at smartphone outlets in Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan and Shenzhen said mounting international pressure on the company has been driving sales since December. 

They estimated that sales have risen as much as 20 per cent since news was made public on December 5 that Huawei’s chief financial officer, and the daughter of its founder, had been arrested in Canada. 

“The arrest of Meng Wanzhou has made Huawei a patriotic icon. Customers say they are buying Huawei phones to show their love for the country — some openly criticise iPhone buyers for not being patriotic,” said Zhao Lixia, a sales agent at a smartphone store in Wuhan. 

Grassroots efforts to stir up a boycott against Apple as a direct response to the US-China trade dispute have fizzled. However, Huawei’s lead over the US company has widened since our November survey, suggesting iPhone sales may have become an indirect victim of Chinese nationalism. Domestic brands have also been hurt in the tide of support for Huawei, with the popularity of both Oppo and Vivo-branded smartphones seeing notable falls in our survey since November. 

Huawei has been grabbing a larger share of a shrinking global smartphone market. Research firm IDC estimates the company’s global shipments rose 44 per cent year-on-year in the fourth quarter against a 4.9 per cent industry-wide drop, which included steep falls for market leaders Samsung and Apple. Richard Yu, chief executive of Huawei’s Consumer Business Group, said last month that Huawei would be  the world’s number one smartphone seller by next year. 

Huawei’s brand popularity has crept up in recent years as the quality of its handsets has improved, helped by massive spending on research and development, although the company has also been dogged by allegations of technology theft. 

With Samsung unable to differentiate in an increasingly crowded market for Android-powered phones, this has turned the battle for China’s smartphone segment into a two-way tussle with Apple. Huawei’s latest Mate 20 and P20 smartphones have been a big hit, in contrast with Apple, whose latest XS and XR models have  fallen flat with Chinese consumers for being too expensive. 

In response, Apple has cut the price of its newest models, offering trade-ins on its website and discounts through third-party sellers. For example, electronics retailer Suning offers a top-of-the-line iPhone XS Max at a 13 per cent discount to Apple’s list price. However, at Rmb11,099 ($1,646), that is still 50 per cent more expensive than an equivalent Huawei Mate 20 Pro. 

FT Confidential Research’s most recent survey of 1,000 urban consumers was conducted during the week of January 21.

FT Confidential Research is an independent research service from the Financial Times, providing in-depth analysis of and statistical insight into China and south-east Asia. Our team of researchers in these key markets combine findings from our proprietary surveys with on-the-ground research to provide predictive analysis for investors.