Founder, father, patriot: The conflict at the heart of Huawei chief’s identity

4 min read
(Image credit: BigStock/BalkansCat)

Life is full of diverse, and sometimes contradictory, roles and obligations. For just about all of us, we must balance between family, profession, individual wants and needs, perhaps religion, and even our country.

The struggle to reconcile these values, interests, and loyalties is difficult, and at times impossible. It is also a challenge that is universally human.

At this moment in time, Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei must be feeling the pressure of these conflicting elements of his identity with pronounced intensity.

Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei. (Image credit: Huawei)

He is the founder and figurehead of one of the world’s largest technology and telecommunications firms, embroiled in a series of security and credibility scandals that threaten to bar the company from many of its most lucrative international markets.

He is also a patriotic Chinese citizen, and member of the Chinese Communist Party, as tensions between his country and the US and its allies seem to be rapidly deteriorating.

Finally, he is a father, whose daughter and heir apparent to his business empire, Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, is under house arrest in Vancouver, Canada, awaiting a potential extradition to the US. If granted, she would stand trial on charges which could put her in prison for what would possibly be the rest of the 74-year-old Ren’s life.

It was within this context that the famously private executive made a rare appearance before journalists in Shenzhen on Tuesday. In his remarks he spoke of his relationship with Meng and his other two children, hinting at regret for a life spent devoted to his work, first in the military and later at Huawei.

Ren’s prioritization of work over family was evident in the culture of the organization he created, and the expectations to which he has held its employees. Huawei is known to intentionally place employees in separate cities, or even countries, from their families, in an attempt to limit distractions from their work. The company also reportedly encourages many of its new recruits to sign a “striver pledge,” in which they voluntarily forego their rights to paid leave, so as to devote themselves and their time entirely to the company. It’s even rumored that Ren ordered a senior executive to get divorced. Ren himself has been divorced twice, and is currently on his third marriage.

Customer over country, Party

In his remarks, Ren also addressed speculation and accusations that his company and its equipment pose risks to the national security of some of the countries where it does business, and that Huawei could be used to spy on behalf of the Chinese government and military.

“When it comes to cybersecurity and privacy protection we are committed to be sided with our customers,” said Ren, speaking through a translator. “We will never harm any nation or any individual.”

Ren attempted to clarify in no uncertain terms that for Huawei, it is accountable first and foremost to its customers, over even its home country, or Ren’s Communist Party affiliation.

“The values of a business entity is customer first, is customer centricity,” he said. “We are a business organization so we must follow business rules.”

“And in that context I don’t see close connection between my personal political beliefs and our business actions we are going to take as a business entity. And I think I already made myself very clear right now, we will definitely say no to such a request,” he added.

While his declaration regarding the priorities of his company was explicit, many observers wonder if he has made commitments to disobey Chinese law.

Article 14 of the country’s National Intelligence Law, passed in 2017, grants intelligence agencies authority to insist on the support of Chinese businesses, stating that “state intelligence work organs, when legally carrying forth intelligence work, may demand that concerned organs, organizations, or citizens provide needed support, assistance, and cooperation.”

The law also requires that organizations and citizens also protect the secrecy of “any state intelligence work secrets of which they are aware.” This law has been cited by numerous foreign governments in explaining decisions to ban Huawei 5G equipment.

Ren’s statement declaring Huawei’s prioritization of its users also, and perhaps most importantly, seems to put him at odds with core doctrinal tenets of the Chinese Communist Party.

The Party famously demands that its members prioritize its wellbeing above all else. The intensity of this mandate, however, has fluctuated throughout the Party’s history.

In the days following the devastating Tangshan earthquake of 1976, Party newspaper the People’s Daily told the story of Che Zhengming, a senior cadre whose son and daughter were buried as their house collapsed. The girl cried out for her father to save her, but the newspaper pointed out that Che knew his priority was to retrieve the local Party chairman from the ruins of a nearby apartment. While he was digging him out, his own children died. The article praised his political commitment.

At 74 years old, this ethic of intense political loyalty is one that came to define China during some of Ren Zhengfei’s most formative years.

However, today’s China is a very different place. The Reform and Opening Up period saw the Party dial down both its ideological intensity as well as its prominence in Chinese nonpolitical life. It began admitting private businesspeople as well, seen by many as an acknowledgment of the various priorities and interests that influence the lives of the Chinese people, and an acceptance of some of the contradictions that define so many human lives and societies.

In 2019, the questions of loyalties, obligations, and identity are once again at the heart of the discourse regarding China. Ideology has begun to play a greater role in the Party, and the Party is playing a greater role in China’s tech sector as well.

As geopolitics intensify, China’s global tech champions are facing a dilemma between competing interests that offers no easy solution.