Editor’s note: Ashley Yablon’s life would eventually get very complicated. Even as he continued to go to work every day as general counsel at ZTE USA’s Richardson headquarters, he sued his company for creating a hostile work environment and exposed the company’s wrongdoings to the FBI, which offered to place him in its witness protection program. But before all that happened, before ZTE got hit with a $1.2 billion sanction, Yablon took a trip to Shenzhen, China, in 2012 to deal with a damning story that had just come out. Reuters had reported that ZTE was breaking the law by selling U.S. technology to Iran, publishing a “packing list” of the parts that had been shipped. Yablon found himself at ZTE’s enormous headquarters in a strange meeting and with only one ally, Meghan, a Chinese lawyer on his team who always bookended her secret intelligence communications to him with the code word “magic.” This excerpt from Yablon’s new book, Standing Up to China, details that meeting in Shenzhen.
The moment we stepped off the elevator on floor 16, it seemed as if we had entered an alternate universe. There was no air conditioning, and the uncirculated air had a stale and dingy quality. The whole ambience of the floor felt untended and frayed around the edges, like an old bus or an airplane that should have been retired years ago. This was clearly a section of the building where guests were never meant to be taken. Not a single office seemed occupied. Old retired chairs were stacked up next to empty rooms. Dust was collecting everywhere, and outdated office equipment lined the walls. It looked like the hallway you walked through in a horror movie. Were they trying to send me a message?
“Welcome to the real ZTE,” I half-joked to Nueve, a lawyer from DD&M, the D.C.-based silk-stocking law firm we’d hired to help with the Commerce Department’s subpoena.
Nueve and I walked down the poorly lit hallway and knocked on the door of the small conference room to which we’d been directed.
“Enter, please,” came a voice from within.
As we stepped into the room, I felt as if we were stepping onto the set of a B-grade spy thriller. The room was bathed in darkness—no windows, no lights on, only what little ambient light was leaking in from the hall. A man sat at the end of a table, his face obscured by shadows. A small banker’s lamp, turned off, and a laptop computer sat in front of him on the table.
“Please, have a seat,” the man said in an unnaturally deep voice, almost as if he was trying to play to the thriller-movie vibe. It was Preston; I recognized his voice and broken English.
I laughed, as I am prone to do when I’m feeling uncomfortable. “Any chance we can have a little light in here?” I said, looking around for a wall switch.
Preston did not answer me right away. Instead, he sat there in pointed silence for several seconds.
“Here, let …….