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Ren Zhengfei has a reputation for secrecy when it comes to the media. The billionaire founder of China’s telecom titan Huawei prefers to let the company’s smartphones do the talking.
But he broke with his protocol for privacy on Tuesday to discuss the controversies swirling around the giant technology group, which also specializes in digital infrastructure.
“[I have] never received any request from any government to provide improper information,” Ren told the international press, including the Financial Times, Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal, in the coastal export hub of Shenzhen, China Daily reported.
“I still love my country, I support the Communist Party, but I will never do anything to harm any country in the world,” he added.
Technology has become a key battleground in the rivalry between the world’s two largest economies and Huawei has been caught in the crossfire.
Allegations that the conglomerate violated sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States led to the arrest in Vancouver last month of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer and Ren’s daughter.
As the case drags on in Canada, she could face extradition to the US.
Then, on Friday, another executive was arrested. This time it involved espionage allegations in Poland. But unlike the Meng saga, authorities revealed that the investigation was limited to employee Wang Weijing, who has since been fired, and not the company.
To add to the spate of negative news for Huawei, there has been intense scrutiny about cybersecurity and perceived links to Beijing’s central government, with countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the United Kingdom restricting market access.
These accusations have been denied by the group.
“Huawei has no connection to the cyber-security issues the US has encountered in the past, current, and future,” Ren, now 74, told the Chinese media in a rare interview a few years ago.
He again reiterated that point earlier this week.
Yet the allegations persist because of Huawei’s crucial role in the “Made in China 2025” plan.
Part of the reason is the sheer scale of the program, which was singled out by US President Donald Trump during the opening salvos of the trade war when he highlighted state subsidies.
This, in turn, has triggered a technological arms race with President Xi Jinping’s administration calling on the industry to become “self-sufficient” in semiconductor production.
China’s reliance on US high-tech was exposed last year when another telecom mega-firm, ZTE, was denied access to crucial components for breaking a sanction-busting agreement related to Iran.
Left crippled, the company nearly folded before a deal was hammered out.
“We have been investing in R&D [research and development] heavily for many years … what has happened to ZTE will not happen to Huawei,” Ren said.
Still, the ramifications were not lost on Beijing as it pushed ahead with the program, which encompasses the Internet of Things and interconnected smart technology linked through artificial intelligence, or AI, and delivered by super-fast 5G networks.
“The Made in China 2025 initiative, has caused deep resentment among American companies and their counterparts elsewhere,” Cheng Li, the director of the John L. Thornton China Center, and Diana Liang, a research assistant at the center, wrote on the Brookings Institution website, in November.
“They have called these practices ‘state capitalism,’ in opposition to fair market competition,” they added.
The rollout of 5G across countries involved in the US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative will be another golden opportunity for Huawei. It will also be a potential minefield.
These ‘New Silk Road’ superhighways will connect China with 68 nations and 4.4 billion people across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe in a maze of multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure projects, including a web of digital links.
“Do we have to be worried about Huawei and other Chinese companies? Yes, I think we have to be worried,” Andrus Ansip, the European Union’s vice-president for a digital single market, said when asked about cybersecurity.
Ren has simply shrugged off concerns from the US and its allies by playing down the risks of his company being blocked from 5G networks overseas.
“It’s always been the case, you can’t work with everyone … we’ll shift our focus to better serve countries that welcome Huawei,” he said, adding that the group had 30 global contracts.
On a more personal note, he stressed that he missed his daughter “very much” before praising Trump as a “great president.”
Last month, Trump made it clear he would intervene with the US Justice Department in the case against Meng if it would help him secure a trade deal with Beijing after agreeing to peace talks in December.
“The message to the US I want to communicate is, collaboration and shared success,” he said. “In our world of high tech, it’s increasingly impossible for any single company or country to sustain or to support the world’s needs.”
Known for being blunt, Ren is rumored to have used his former connections in the People’s Liberation Army to get what is now a sprawling conglomerate off the ground.
Again, he denies these allegations.
But since Huawei was founded in 1987 with 21,000 yuan (then $4,400) of his own money, Ren has built a group which employs 180,000 staffand has become the world’s largest manufacturer of telecom equipment.
Last year, the family-run business was reported to have generated estimated earnings of around $100 billion in sales. On the consumer side, it also sells more smartphones than Apple.
“I personally would never harm the interest of my customers and my company would not answer to such requests,” he said during the briefing on Tuesday.
“[The] Ministry of Foreign Affairs has officially clarified that no law in China requires any company to install mandatory backdoors. Huawei and [I] have never received [a] request from [the] government to provide improper information,” he added, addressing fears that Huawei might allow the country’s intelligence agencies to extract private data.
While his sentiments might be heartfelt, it is open to debate whether the media recluse has eased global anxieties.