Huawei Technologies Co. founder Ren Zhengfei struck a defiant tone in the face of U.S. sanctions that threaten his company’s very survival.
In an interview with Bloomberg Television, the billionaire founder of China’s largest technology company conceded that Trump administration export curbs will cut into a two-year lead Huawei had painstakingly built over rivals like Ericsson AB and Nokia Oyj. But the company will either ramp up its own chip supply or find alternatives to keep its edge in smartphones and 5G.
The U.S. on May 17 blacklisted Huawei – which it accuses of aiding Beijing in espionage – and cut it off from the U.S. software and components it needs to make its products. The ban hamstrings the world’s largest provider of networking gear and No. 2 smartphone vendor, just as it was preparing to vault to the forefront of global technology. It’s rocking chipmakers from America to Europe as the global supply chain comes under threat. The ban could also disrupt the rollout of 5G wireless globally, undermining a standard that’s touted as the foundation of everything from autonomous cars to robot surgery.
Ren maintained Huawei had the capability to devise its own solutions – given time. It’s been designing its own chips for years, which it now uses in many of its own smartphones. It’s even developing its own operating software to run phones and servers. The CEO however deflected questions about how quickly
Huawei can ramp up those internal replacement endeavors. Failure could dent the fast-growing consumer business and even kill emergent efforts such as cloud servers.
“That depends on how fast our repairmen are able to fix the plane,” said Ren, who appeared at ease in a white jacket over a pink shirt, making light of questions about his company’s plight. “No matter what materials they use, be it metal, cloth or paper, the aim is to keep the plane in the sky.”
Ren has gone from recluse to media maven in the span of months as he fights to save the $100 billion company he founded. The 74-year-old billionaire emerged from virtual seclusion after the arrest of eldest daughter and Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou as part of a broader probe of Huawei. He’s since become a central figure in a U.S.-Chinese conflict that’s potentially the most important episode to shape world affairs since the collapse of the Soviet Union. As Ren said in January, when the world’s biggest economies battle for dominion, nothing in their way will survive. His company is a “sesame seed” between twin great powers, he said.
“This may bring one of China’s national champions to its knees,” said Chris Lane, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. “If China shut down all the Apple plants, the U.S. would get very upset. This is a similar kind of move.”
Ren has had much to deal with of late. His company finds itself increasingly under fire, besieged by a U.S. effort to get key allies to ban its equipment. The U.S. assault helped crystallize fears about Huawei’s growing clout in areas from wireless infrastructure and semiconductors to consumer gadgets.
Then came the blacklist. Huawei appears to have anticipated this possibility since at least mid-2018, when similar sanctions threatened to sink rival ZTE Corp. Huawei’s said to have stockpiled enough chips and other vital components to keep its business running at least three months.
“We have made some really good chips,” said Ren, a legendary figure in his home country thanks to the way he built Huawei from scratch into a global powerhouse. “Being able to grow in the toughest battle environment, that just reflects how great we are.”
Last week, Trump said Huawei could become part of a U.S-Chinese trade deal, stirring speculation it was a bargaining chip in sensitive negotiations. But Ren said he wasn’t a politician. “It’s a big joke,” he scoffed. “How are we related to China-U.S. trade?”
If Trump calls, “I will ignore him, then to whom can he negotiate with? If he calls me, I may not answer. But he doesn’t have my number.”
In fact, Ren pulled no punches in going after a man he labeled “a great president” just months prior. “I see his tweets and think it’s laughable because they’re self-contradictory,” he quipped. “How did he become a master of the art of the deal?”
Beijing itself isn’t without options. Some speculate China might retaliate against the ban of Huawei – which may widen to include some of its most promising AI firms – by in turn barring America’s largest corporations from its own markets. Apple Inc. could relinquish nearly a third of its profit if China banned its products, Goldman Sachs analysts estimate.
Ren said he would object to any such move against his American rival.
“That will not happen, first of all. And second of all, if that happens, I’ll be the first to protest,” Ren said in the interview. “Apple is my teacher, it’s in the lead. As a student, why go against my teacher? Never.”
At the heart of Trump’s campaign is suspicion that Huawei aids Beijing in espionage while spearheading China’s ambitions to become a technology superpower. It’s been accused for years of stealing intellectual property in lawsuits filed by American companies from Cisco Systems Inc. and Motorola Inc. to T-Mobile US Inc. Critics say such theft helped Huawei vault into the upper echelons of technology – but Ren laughed off that premise.
“I stole the American technologies from tomorrow. The U.S. doesn’t even have those technologies,” he said. “We are ahead of the U.S. If we were behind, there would be no need for Trump to strenuously attack us.”
Ren’s easy demeanor belies the way he’s consistently shunned attention. The army engineer-turned-entrepreneur has this year turned in a command performance in the public spotlight, particularly for someone who’s rarely spoken to foreign media since he created Huawei. The re-emergence of the reclusive CEO – who before January last spoke with foreign media in 2015 – underscores the depth of the attacks on Huawei, the largest symbol of China’s growing technological might. Ren again waved off speculation his company is in any way beholden to the Communist Party, though he’s declared his loyalty ultimately lies with the country’s ruling body.
U.S. lawmakers aren’t convinced. That’s why the U.S. Commerce Department cut off the flow of American technology – from chips to software and everything in-between.
An iconic figure in Chinese business circles, the billionaire remains a uniquely placed voice in a conflict that will help define the global landscape. Ren, who says he survived the chaos of the Cultural Revolution thanks in part to his much sought-after expertise in high-precision tools, remains a big believer that Huawei’s technology will win the day.
His company today generates more sales than internet giants Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Tencent Holdings Ltd. combined. In 2018, Huawei overtook Apple in smartphone sales, a triumph that burnished his tech credentials. His quotes adorn the walls of the food court at Huawei’s sprawling campus on the outskirts of the southern metropolis of Shenzhen, and employees still speak of him in reverent tones. The company’s 2018 report shows he has a 1.14% stake, giving him a net worth of $2 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Ren, who survived Mao Zedong’s great famine to found Huawei in 1987 with 21,000 yuan, said Huawei will do whatever it takes to survive. It will ignore the noise while doing its business the best it can. Meanwhile, the pressure is bound to take a toll. At one point during the interview, Ren’s unflappable demeanor cracked – if only for a minute.
“The U.S. has never bought products from us,” he said, bristling. “Even if the U.S. wants to buy our products in the future, I may not sell to them. There’s no need for a negotiation.”