Huawei founder brushes off accusations that it acts as an arm of the Chinese state

Ren Zhengfei tells James Ashton why he is suspicious of the stock market, saying that ‘shareholders are greedy’

Ren Zhengfei wants to make one thing clear. The reason it has taken the founder of the controversial Chinese telecoms equipment maker Huawei so long to give his first interview in Britain is not that he is secretive, just shy.

"Some people have been saying that my reluctance to meet with the media has been used as a reason to label Huawei as a mysterious company,” he said through an interpreter. “I think that it is more of a personality issue. However, I have been trying to become more open, including to friends in the media, so you know what type of person I am and that may help to unveil … the last of the mystery about Huawei.”

And what mystery it has been. Huawei, a crucial contributor to the 4G revolution, has grown ferociously in the last few decades. Suspicions that it acts as an arm of the Chinese state, passing information back to Beijing, has been vigorously denied – and has not inhibited progress.

In Britain, where Huawei’s kit is already installed at the heart of our phone networks, the company is in the middle of a five-year, £1.3bn spending programme that has seen it put a headquarters into Reading with a state-of-the art research centre to follow. George Osborne sees the relationship as a bridgehead to lure more Chinese investment to Britain. The Government’s welcome is in stark contrast to how Huawei – which roughly translates as “achievement for China” – is still viewed in America, however.

His supporters would dearly love to paint Mr Ren, who founded the business with a few thousand pounds 27 years ago, as an entrepreneur more like Jack Ma, the technology entrepreneur behind Alibaba, than a military mastermind.

What has helped Mr Ren’s cause has been leaks from former US security contractor Edward Snowden suggesting that America’s National Security Agency had accessed its servers and monitored Huawei bosses’ communications.

The irony is that the equipment supplier has made little headway in selling its kit into the US after it became the target of congressional hearings and was accused of acting as a conduit for Chinese espionage.

When quizzed on whether someone was listening into his phone calls, Mr Ren said: “That’s something within my expectations.” He added: “From our point of view, there is nothing secret in the things that I would be talking about.”

Mr Ren said he had no knowledge of the surveillance in the past – but “I would have guessed someone would have been interested in this stuff”. He described his role in Huawei as at the “thinking level”, so “all my thoughts I need to share with the others sooner or later”.

He doesn’t expect the Snowden leaks to halt Huawei’s breakneck growth, forecasting that revenues could double in five years, to as much as $80bn (£47bn) by 2018. Most of its turnover today comes from telecoms kit, where it rivals Swedish giant Ericsson and dwarfs Nokia and Alcatel-Lucent.

Huawei is also the number three smartphone maker behind Apple and Samsung, but their huge profits are “beyond our imagination”, he said. The division’s improved performance has given him hope for the future “but we should not be blinded by that hope”.

Mr Ren was a member of the People’s Liberation Army, serving in the engineering corps until 1982, when China made huge military cuts. He struggled with the transition to corporate life. “Instinctively I felt that the market economy was about cheating,” he said, after he was cheated by others and didn’t have the money for litigation. “In the army you never talk about money; you only talk about how you can serve the people better.”

He is still suspicious of the stock market, and will resist calls for Huawei – which is owned by thousands of its staff, with Mr Ren holding just 1.4 per cent – to go public

“In reality, shareholders are greedy,” he said. “They want to squeeze every bit out of the company as soon as possible.”

Being staff-owned is “part of the reason why Huawei could catch up and overtake some of our peers in our industry”. The staff scheme that lets workers buy stock will be extended to all key non-Chinese people by the end of this year. Could Huawei list in the future, though? “The company would also possibly become greedy but now we can suppress that greed for a certain period of time. But I cannot assure we can suppress that kind of greed forever. I can’t live forever and my promise can’t hold forever.”

Huawei has made strides to internationalise, with 40,000 non-Chinese staff in a total workforce of 150,000 and a “majority of our top-notch scientists coming from the West”.

A UK parliamentary report last year found that Huawei was allowed to embed itself in Britain’s telecoms system without proper security checks – but failed to find evidence of unauthorised snooping.

The company produces the building blocks of the internet and mobile communications – base stations, broadband connections boxes, routers, data-storage units and mobile-phone handsets. Its  management structure is like no other,  having three rotating chief executives alongside Mr Ren. He is reluctant for just a single leader to take over when it is time for him to step back, asking what Huawei can learn from Britain’s monarchy.

He also has plenty to say about America, where “we keenly look forward to opportunities to provide our services and goods”.

Mr Ren invokes the heroes of the 9/11 terror attacks to explain his appreciation of America’s greatness. But had he been born in China, Apple’s late co-founder, Steve Jobs, would have not been so successful, he said.

“It would have been very tough for him even to survive,” he explained, because of Jobs’ tendency to stand out from the crowd.

What about Mr Ren’s very own White House, which a building at his headquarters in Shenzhen, southern China, is said to be modelled on?

“That is just a small entrance,” Mr Ren said, looking puzzled. “And the colour is yellow, not white.”

Never mind the company, what about the man?

Married with three children, Mr Ren, 69, said he felt like “a student at a primary school taking a test” as he was quizzed about himself. Smartly dressed, with red tie, blue shirt and neatly parted dark hair, he added: “When I was a kid, my family was quite poor. As a result, apart from doing the homework I didn’t have the opportunity to build a hobby for myself. I don’t even know how to drink and how to smoke. Overall, my personal life is not that colourful.”

His colleague leans in to suggest that Mr Ren is “very interested in reading and enjoying tea”, especially “British afternoon tea”. His biggest regret is not fulfilling his feudal responsibilities to his parents. “When I realised I had to do so, my parents were already gone.” The family is connected to the business, though. His daughter is Huawei’s finance director.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Stiller as Derek Zoolander in the leaked trailer for Zoolander 2
film
Sport
footballArsenal take the Community Shield thanks to a sensational strike from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
Arts and Entertainment
Gemma Chan as synth Anita in Humans
film
News
Keeping it friendly: Tom Cruise on ‘The Daily Show’ with Jon Stewart
people
Arts and Entertainment
Ensemble cast: Jamie McCartney with ‘The Great Wall of Vagina’
artBritish artist Jamie McCartney explains a work that is designed to put women's minds at rest
News
Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump
people
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Administrator

£13000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about custom...

Recruitment Genius: Dialler Administrator

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Main purpose: Under the directi...

Ashdown Group: Contracts Manager - City of London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Contracts Manager - City...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen