I’m ZTE’s whistleblower. Defending my country has cost me dearly.
My name is Ashley Yablon and I’m a whistleblower. In 2012, I discovered that my employer, ZTE, a huge multinational corporation based in China, was deliberately and intentionally violating US law, amounting to hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars in annual revenue.
I was faced with a dilemma: should I shut up and continue to enjoy my great career in corporate law, or should I say something? The stakes were incredibly high whichever path I chose.
If I decided to shed some light on what was going on at the company, not only would the company lose billions of dollars in business, but it would also face massive legal consequences from the US government.
If I played with the scam, then here is the ultimate picture I saw: me standing in front of Congress live on C-SPAN as the sole representative of ZTE USA, swearing the lies of my Chinese employer. And with every false answer I gave, I would be committing even more treason because, despite assurances to the contrary, ZTE was indeed selling spy technology to countries under embargo against US law. A federal prison cell was probably waiting for me.
Anyway, I would choose to go there, the status of US-China relations would probably be changed. No exaggeration. And it all came back to me.
I never considered myself particularly heroic; I’m just gonna put this on the table. I mean sure, I’m basically an ethical person, a good person. I am. But I am not a moral purist. As a lawyer, I have sometimes turned a blind eye when my clients or my employers flirted with the intricacies of the law. But the situation I came across at ZTE was so glaring, so black and white, that it basically drew a line through the center of my consciousness. And I knew which side of that line I decided to stand on was going to define me for the rest of my life. In this sense, the decision was not difficult. But it was still the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.
The costs of my actual decision? Huge. My employer lost billions of dollars in business and endured the highest fine ever imposed by a US court in history. And if you read the newspapers, you know that ZTE is still reeling from the blows due to the huge restrictions that have been imposed on its products and its market all over the world. ZTE may never fully recover.
My costs were huge too. I lost my dream job and my dream career. I lost my reputation in the job market where I earn my living. There was a period of over two years when no one, literally no one, returned my calls.
I racked up six-figure attorney fees. I lost a ton of money and had to borrow from family and friends. I lost relationships. I lost my pride, my faith to be protected as an American citizen, my health and my peace of mind. I was being chased by dangerous people, and my wife, Donna, and I were being threatened with death.
I finally got most of the important stuff back. I’m still alive, and that’s something.
But my career? My finances? My relationships? My safety and security? Well, I’ll tell you about that later in the book.
Looking back on the whole saga, I try to take personal responsibility – or at least try to see how I got involved in this whole debacle.
I ask, “What was my fatal flaw here?” What did I do to get myself into this mess? The simple answer is: naivety, or something close to it. I trust people and situations too much. I only saw what I wanted to see. I wore rose-colored glasses.
At the time I was hired by ZTE, I thought my dream job was being offered to me, and so, without ever really weighing the potential risks or diving deep into the business and the circumstances, I skipped the head first. I bought into the myth I wanted to believe, and my belief blinded my perception.
I am convinced, now, that I was hired to be the scapegoat from the start. I think ZTE prepared me for this from the moment I walked through the door. But even before that, I think my life was preparing me to play my part in this drama. I was the perfect person to fit into the perfect role at the perfect time. Call it a perfect storm.
Ashley Yablon is the former legal advisor to Huawei and ZTE and author of the book “Standing Up to China: How a Whistleblower Risked Everything for His Country”. This column is an excerpt from the book, which will be released Tuesday at an event at Barnes and Noble in Prestonwood Center at 7 p.m.
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