Defiant Huawei founder takes aim at critics, doubters and Trump

Huawei Technologies co-founder Ren Zhengfei said that his company had the capability to devise its own solutions to the United States' export curbs, given time.
Huawei Technologies co-founder Ren Zhengfei said that his company had the capability to devise its own solutions to the United States' export curbs, given time.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING • Huawei Technologies founder Ren Zhengfei struck a defiant tone in the face of United States 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 the Trump administration's export curbs will cut into a two-year lead Huawei had painstakingly built over rivals such as Ericsson and Nokia. But the company will either ramp up its own chip supply or find alternatives to keep its edge in smartphones and 5G.

On May 17, the US blacklisted Huawei - which it accuses of aiding Beijing in espionage - and cut it off from the US 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 is rocking chipmakers from America to Europe as the global supply chain comes under threat. The ban could also disrupt the roll-out of 5G wireless networks globally, undermining a standard that is touted as the foundation of everything from autonomous cars to robot surgery.

Mr Ren maintained that Huawei had the capability to devise its own solutions - given time. It has been designing its own chips for years, which it now uses in many of its own smartphones. It is even developing its own operating software to run phones and servers.

The chief executive, however, deflected questions about how quickly Huawei can ramp up these internal replacement endeavours.

"That depends on how fast our repairmen are able to fix the plane," said Mr Ren, who appeared at ease, 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."

 
 
 

Mr Ren has gone from recluse to media maven in a span of months as he fights to save the US$100 billion (S$137 billion) company he founded. The 74-year-old billionaire emerged from virtual seclusion after the arrest of his eldest daughter and chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou as part of a broader probe by the US of Huawei. He has since become a central figure in a US-China conflict that is potentially the most important episode to shape world affairs since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The US assault helped crystallise 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 the middle of last year, when similar sanctions threatened to sink rival ZTE. Huawei is said to have stockpiled enough chips and other vital components to keep its business running for at least three months.

"We have made some really good chips," said Mr Ren. "Being able to grow in the toughest battle environment, that just reflects how great we are."

Last week, Mr Trump said Huawei could become part of a US-China trade deal, stirring speculation that it was a bargaining chip in sensitive negotiations.

But Mr Ren, noting he was not a politician, scoffed: "It is a big joke."

  • ON HUAWEI'S RESOLVE TO KEEP GOING

    No matter what materials they use, be it metal, cloth or paper, the aim is to keep the plane in the sky.

    HUAWEI TECHNOLOGIES FOUNDER REN ZHENGFEI, speaking about Huawei's capability to devise its own solutions.


    ON THE TRADE WAR

    It is a big joke… How are we related to China-US trade?

    MR REN, on US President Donald Trump saying that Huawei could become part of a US-China trade deal.

    ON NOT SPEAKING TO TRUMP

    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.

    MR REN, on what he would do if Mr Trump calls.


    ON TRUMP'S NEGOTIATING SKILLS

    I see his tweets and think it is laughable because they are self-contradictory… How did he become a master of the art of the deal? ''

    MR REN, going after the man he labelled "a great President" just months earlier.


    ON PROSPECT OF RETALIATORY ACTION AGAINST APPLE

    Apple is my teacher, it is in the lead. As a student, why go against my teacher? Never.

    MR REN, saying he would object to any move by China against his American rival Apple.


    ON CLAIMS OF INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY THEFT

    I stole the American technologies from tomorrow. The US doesn't even have those technologies… We are ahead of the US. If we were behind, there would be no need for Trump to strenuously attack us.

    MR REN, responding to accusations by US companies that Huawei has stolen intellectual property.

"How are we related to China-US trade?" he said. If Mr 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".

Mr Ren pulled no punches in going after a man he labelled "a great President" just months prior.

"I see his tweets and think it is laughable because they are self-contradictory," he quipped. "How did he become a master of the art of the deal?"

Beijing itself is not without options. Some speculate China might retaliate against the ban on Huawei - which may widen to include some of its most promising artificial intelligence firms - by in turn barring America's largest corporations from its own markets. Apple could relinquish nearly a third of its profit if China banned its products, Goldman Sachs analysts estimate.

But Mr 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 will be the first to protest," Mr Ren said. "Apple is my teacher, it is in the lead. As a student, why go against my teacher? Never."

At the heart of Mr Trump's campaign is suspicion that Huawei aids Beijing in espionage while spearheading China's ambitions to become a technology superpower. It has been accused for years of stealing intellectual property in lawsuits filed by US companies from Cisco Systems to Motorola to T-Mobile US.

Critics say such theft helped Huawei vault into the upper echelons of technology - but Mr Ren laughed off that premise.

"I stole the American technologies from tomorrow. The US doesn't even have those technologies," he said. "We are ahead of the US. If we were behind, there would be no need for Trump to strenuously attack us."

The army engineer-turned-entrepreneur again waved off speculation that Huawei is in any way beholden to the Communist Party, though he has declared his loyalty lies with the country's ruling body.

Mr 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.

Still, the pressure is bound to take a toll. At one point in the interview, Mr Ren's unflappable demeanour cracked - if only for a minute.

"The US has never bought products from us," he said, bristling. "Even if the US wants to buy our products in the future, I may not sell to them. There is no need for a negotiation."

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 28, 2019, with the headline 'Defiant Huawei founder takes aim at critics, doubters and Trump'. Print Edition | Subscribe