Huawei Technologies founder Ren Zhengfei spoke to reporters on Tuesday with a calm that belied the significance of the occasion. It was the media-shy CEO’s first meeting with foreign press in three years. Ren, 74, has remained quiet as one government after another has accused his company of spying for China and his daughter, Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, awaits extradition to the United States on fraud charges.
“If we are not able to sell in some markets we would rather have a smaller scale, so long as we can feed our employees,” said Ren, speaking through an interpreter. But the challenges facing Huawei, the world’s largest manufacturer of telecoms equipment and the second largest seller of smartphones, are severe. For three decades, the Chinese company has fought tirelessly to expand overseas; Ren’s comments Tuesday suggest he is settling in for an even longer fight, rather than throwing in the towel.
A question of service
The venue for Ren’s unusual audience with the press was an opulent villa secluded on the grounds of Huawei’s Shenzhen headquarters. Ren used the meeting to offer assurance that so long as Huawei develops compelling products, there will be customers to buy them. “So what matters now,” he said, “is that we work to improve internal management, work to improve our products and work to improve our services.”
The governments blocking Huawei’s expansion are concerned by the company’s politics rather than its services. The United States, Huawei’s most vocal skeptic, cites Ren’s military history, his Chinese Communist Party membership, and the company’s compliance with Chinese law as cause for concern. Ren dismissed those claims as overblown.
“Up until today I am someone who spent time in the military without any military rank,” he said. To hear Ren tell it, he spent his time in the PLA’s engineering corps establishing a factory for the manufacture of synthetic clothing. When his military career ended in 1982, Ren held a civilian rank equivalent to deputy regimental chief, although he had longed to be a lieutenant colonel.
As for his party membership, Ren says he doesn’t see any “close connection” between his personal political beliefs and his company’s business operations. Alibaba issued a similar statement last year when it emerged that its founder, Jack Ma, is also a member of the Communist Party. But Huawei, unlike Alibaba, is not a public company.
Ren declines the notion that going public would help alleviate fears that Huawei is somehow owned by the Chinese government. Every cent of Huawei stock, he said, is owned by Huawei employees. Ren himself owns 1.4% of company shares, according to the company’s latest annual report, while the rest are held on behalf of the employees by the Union of Huawei Investment & Holding Co. Ren invited journalists to review the company’s shareholding registry at some later date.
Regardless of who owns Huawei, the company is subject to Chinese law and Party rule. The U.S. and others fear China’s leaders could compel Huawei to provide sensitive information on their network systems in accordance with China’s National Intelligence Law, which obligates organizations and individuals to “support, assist in and cooperate with national intelligence work…and keep confidential the national intelligence work that it or he knows.”
Ren said the company has never been asked to provide information on a client but was less forthcoming on what would happen should it receive such a request. The founder and long-serving CEO suggests he would rather the company shut down than violate a client’s privacy. “I love my country, I support the Communist Party of China, but I will never do anything to harm any other nation,” he says.
Long live the king
“When I started Huawei, I had to fight for the company’s survival,” Ren said, recalling how he worked 16-hour shifts at the office. The time away from home, he added, left a rift in his relationship with his son and his daughter, Meng Wanzhou.
“I once asked my children if they would prefer I spend more time with them or build a platform for them to shine,” he said. “They chose the platform for their professional development.”
Meng Wanzhou, who is accused of defrauding banks, has been detained by the Canadian government in response to an extradition request from the U.S. Department of Justice. Prior to her detention, Meng was often cited as a possible successor to her father as CEO. Ren, however, has previously declared that none of his offspring have what it takes to lead the company. On Tuesday he stressed that he has no say over who will succeed him as head of the company.
“I’m not the King of Saudi Arabia,” he joked. But Ren also emphasized that he has no plans to retire, joking that he hopes medicine will advance quick enough to keep him around forever.
Ren declined to comment when asked if he thought the U.S. had targeted Meng for prosecution because she is his daughter. Instead he offered thanks to those involved in Meng’s legal defense, adding that he misses her very much. Ren doesn’t expect President Trump to make good on his tweeted suggestion that he might intervene in the case. He did, however, offer words of praise for the U.S. leader.
“I believe he’s a great president, in the sense that he was bold to slash taxes, which I think is conducive to the development of our industries in the United States,” Ren said, echoing promises he has made previously that Huawei will make a “glorious” return to America. Without Huawei, Ren argued, rural America will have to pay a premium for 5G.
“Maybe then the situation will be very different. Rather than banning Huawei systems, maybe the U.S. will approach us and ask us to sell our systems,” he said. “We are a company that is customer centric therefore I think it is possible that we will agree.” Fortune*