Rags to oppressing workers: Ren Zhengfei

STATUS: Founder and CEO of Huawei Technologies

REPUTATION: Mega-rich communist and ‘hard truth’ sag

When we think of the world’s growing billionaire class, it’s usually Elon Musk, Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos who spring to mind. But of the 2,640 billionaires on the planet, 495 are Chinese. Only the US with 735 has more of these strange creatures. While Ren Zhengfei was unceremoniously bumped off Forbes’s list this year, demoted to a mere multi-millionaire, Huawei, the company he founded, remains one of the largest and most important in the Chinese economy.

What makes Zhengfei stand out among China’s mega-wealthy elite however, is his devout support of the Communist Party’s brand of nationalism as well as his tendency towards blunt utterances. He famously claims that if there was a conflict of interest between the company and the party he would choose the latter because to him, it represents ‘the principle of serving all human beings’. Music to the ears in Beijing.

Unlike many of today’s young tech big shots who started out as teenagers, the 78-year-old Zhengfei set up Huawei at the ripe old age of 43 after serving 20 years as an engineer in the Chinese military. Maybe this is why he eschews the kind of programmatic optimism typical of so many corporate types. Recently, for example, he issued a dire warning in a leaked memo that Huawei and the Chinese economy were entering choppy waters. ‘The chill will be felt by everyone,’ it warns.

Zhengfei’s story is a tale of rags to riches, or so he says. Born in 1944 in the impoverished southwestern province of Guizhou, the tech boss takes pride in having overcome poverty to head the world’s second biggest smart phone company. This is perhaps why Zhengfei appears to have little sympathy for his exhausted employees. Huawei workers, like many in the tech sector, are subjected to the gruelling ‘996’ schedule – working 9.00am to 9.00pm, six days a week.

But in recent years, growing numbers of young tech workers have started rejecting China’s ingrained culture of overwork by opting out of it. This passive rebellion, known as ‘lying flat’ or Tang ping is an anathema to workaholics like Zhengfei and he has been characteristically blunt in his response: ‘You want to lie flat, but you might not even be eligible to survive’.

Huawei has some less than savoury clients. Human rights groups recently claimed Huawei-made CCTV with facial recognition capabilities has been rolled out in junta-controlled Myanmar. But it’s the firm’s alleged ties to the Chinese state that has got it into hot water. Fears around China using Huawei’s 5G global networks to spy on its adversaries have grown particularly in national security circles of the Anglosphere. The US, whose own track record on mass surveillance can hardly be described as squeaky clean, has pummelled the tech giant with sanctions, leading to a 70 per cent plunge in Huawei’s profits in March 2023.

While Zhengfei denies that his firm has links to the Chinese government, this has, at times, proved hard to stand up. In 2018, his daughter Meng Wanzhou, then Huawei’s chief financial officer, was detained in Vancouver on a US arrest warrant. Nine days later, Chinese police arrested two Canadians to force her release.

LOW CUNNING

Officially, Ren Zhengfei owns only one per cent of Huawei, with 99 per cent held by a ‘labour union’ of its employees. All sounds very democratic and worthy of communist street cred. But appearances can be deceiving: shareholder meetings are usually held with only two people, one of them being the CEO himself who also has a veto over important decisions. Thus, what appears as ‘all power to the workers’ is in fact ‘all power to Zhengfei and his family’.

SENSE OF HUMOUR

A dry wit that is usually on target. As when he warned his engineers to curtail any political interests. ‘What’s the point of them caring about political issues? If our engineers are all out protesting, who is going to pay them?’