The Lithuanian Basketball Federation (LKF) has signed a sponsorship deal with China’s Huawei. The logo of a company allegedly associated with espionage and human rights violations may now appear on the T-shirts of the Lithuanian national team.
Some observers in the country argue that the technology giant, which has been accused of links with the Chinese government and aiding Beijing’s espionage efforts, has no place in Lithuania’s favourite sport.
Observer Marius Laurinavičius of the Vilnius Institute for Policy Analysis went so far as to call the deal a threat to national security.
“When the democratic world is beginning to realise the threats posed by China in general and Huawei in particular, […] such a deal gets signed in Lithuania,” he posted on Facebook. “I can’t imagine what is going on in the heads of the basketball federation.”
According to political analyst and China expert Konstantinas Andrijauskas of Vilnius University, Huawei’s sponsorship is hardly a national security threat, but it is a mistake.
“At the very least it’s very unwise and potentially risky,” Andrijauskas told LRT.lt. “It sends a very weird message to our businesses, our partners, international allies, not to mention ordinary Lithuanians.”
While Huawei has sponsored Lithuanian basketball before, the company’s international perception has changed significantly over the past few years, according to Andrijauskas.
Last year, a Huawei employee was detained in Poland on suspicions of spying, while US and European media have reported about the company’s surveillance technologies being used for the Chinese government’s oppression of Uighurs in Xinjiang, he noted.
“The world has changed over the last 5–7 years, bet the [Lithuanian Basketball] Federation, apparently, has not,” according to Andrijauskas.
Meanwhile the LKF claims the Huawei deal is vitally important for the sport which has suffered as other private sponsors slashed their budgets during the pandemic.
“Everyone’s income has dropped, we have no air, nowhere to play,” LKF general secretary Mindaugas Špokas told LRT.lt “Crucially, it’s not the top-level sport that will get hit – they can support themselves – but the kids: the school league, youth teams are fully supported by us.”
According to Špokas, state support for the federation covers a quarter of its needs, while “over 63 percent” of the budget comes from private sponsors.
“We would be happy to put ‘Lithuania’ on our T-shirts and nothing else,” Špokas said, if the federation were fully publicly funded.
He rejected accusations that Huawei’s sponsorship was inappropriate.
“If it’s a legally sold product, a legal company and service, what’s the problem? […] We have not received a single report [about risks posed by Huawei], there must be the government’s guidelines about what we can and cannot do,” Špokas said.
Last year, FK Sūduva, a football club in Lithuania’s western town of Marijampolė, attracted criticism when it signed a sponsorship deal with another Chinese technology firm Hikvision, putting its name on the team’s stadium. Hikvision has also been criticised for abetting human rights abuses in China.