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‘Bloodthirsty’ like a wolf: Inside the military-style discipline at China’s tech titan Huawei

A woman walks past Huawei and Apple shops in Beijing on Dec. 12, 2018.
A woman walks past Huawei and Apple shops in Beijing on Dec. 12, 2018. (Jason Lee/Reuters)
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BEIJING — The founder of Huawei Technologies, a former engineer in China’s People’s Liberation Army, runs the telecom titan with military discipline.

New employees at the company’s headquarters in Shenzhen must undergo a two-week boot camp at Huawei University, the company’s training institute, complete with sessions that are literally called “brainwashing,” according to former employees.

They sleep in a dormitory and wake up every day at 5 a.m. for running and exercises in red-and-white Huawei uniforms. Then come classes about history, company products and its corporate culture — which, they learn, is “bloodthirsty” like a wolf, according to former employees.

Orientation camps are not uncommon in the Chinese business world. But Huawei is in a league of its own.

The technology company has made intense internal discipline part of its official narrative. Now, every aspect of the company — including its hard-driving internal practices — are being scrutinized after the Dec. 1 arrest of its chief financial officer in Canada on U.S. fraud charges.

A popular online post in China is called “Why did I come to Huawei?” One employee, writing anonymously, described the first year on the job as “painful.”

“The fearlessness of difficulties and eagerness of making progress are insisted by every member of Huawei, no matter how complicated the hardship is,” Huawei says on one of its websites. The English is clunky, but the idea is not lost.

Even the blogger who complained about the pain of working at Huawei admitted this works.

“If it wasn’t because of this passion, if it wasn’t because of this striving, how could Huawei be where it is today?” the employee asked in the post.

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Huawei is a classic rags-to-riches story. The company was founded in 1987 by Ren Zhengfei, a man from a rural area who spent about 20 years in the People’s Liberation Army, serving in a military technology division. He went on to start Huawei with a staff of three and the equivalent of $5,000.

Now it is a multibillion-dollar behemoth.

Ren, the 74-year-old CEO, appeared to be grooming his eldest daughter, Meng Wanzhou, to take the reins. She had risen through the ranks to become chief financial officer and sit on the board.

But her fate is in question after her arrest in Vancouver. The United States is seeking her extradition to face fraud charges related to violating U.S. sanctions against Iran. 

Her arrest reflects a broader issue at Huawei, analysts say.

Even as it has expanded at juggernaut pace to operate in 170 countries, it remains a decidedly Chinese company, complete with the boot camps and an entirely Chinese board of directors.

The founder’s background in the Chinese military also has engendered suspicions that Huawei could be working with China’s state security services to spy on customers.

Huawei has denied any such role. The company did not respond to a request for comment for this report.

But concerns about possible spyware and Huawei’s apparently close state links have been raised around the world. Some countries, including the United States, Australia and New Zealand, have taken steps that could block Huawei hardware from their networks for the next generation of cellphone technology, known as 5G.

“Huawei views itself as being in a battle or ‘war’ with all of its competitors,” wrote Eric Flamholtz, a management consultant who did a case study about Huawei. “From Ren Zhengfei’s perspective, it is a ‘continuous battle for survival.’ In that battle, according to Ren Zhengfei, the ultimate weapon is corporate culture.”

flattering Harvard Business Review article on Huawei’s success noted in 2015 that there is a “battlefield-like intensity” to the way the company operates. In its early days, one of Ren’s favorite slogans had battle-cry quality: “If we should fail, let’s fight to our utmost until we all die,” the HBR authors noted.

And back then, every new employee was given a blanket and an army-style mattress pad. The idea was work, sleep, work again.

Huawei executive wanted by U.S. faces fraud charges related to Iran sanctions 

“Huawei’s bureaucracy is very serious. This may be because the company’s boss once served in the military,” one former Huawei worker wrote on Kanzhun, a website similar to Glassdoor, where employees review their employers. “As a result, underlings have no rights and cannot discuss things with their superiors. They must obey orders.”

Others noted that the pay was good and that the grueling work style builds resilience.

Other Chinese tech companies, such as Alibaba and Xiaomi, are also known for grueling days, even sparking the phrase “996.” Employees work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.

But Huawei seems to take it to the next level. 

There’s an apocryphal story inside the company about how a man from Japan, a country so notorious for its long hours that “death by overwork” is a recognized phenomenon, started at Huawei. He lasted only three months. When he quit, he called the overtime “inhumane.” Whether or not it’s true, the company appears to want it to be an urban myth.

Even today, Huawei workers are asked to “voluntarily” sign a “striver agreement,” a pledge of loyalty in which they give up their vacation leave and overtime pay, said Elliott Zaagman, a corporate trainer and executive coach who has written extensively about Huawei and other Chinese tech companies.

This work ethic helped turn Huawei into the world’s largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer and its second-largest maker of smartphones, behind Samsung and ahead of Apple. 

For this kind of work, Huawei offers employees the same kind of economic leaps and bounds it has experienced as a company. 

It deliberately recruits good students from far-flung cities who are looking for their “first pot of gold,” as a Chinese saying goes, Zaagman said. The phrase refers to the first opportunity that a person receives to make a lot of money or to move into the middle class.

Employees are rewarded through a stock program that becomes more lucrative the longer they stay, meaning a lower-ranking but long-serving employee can earn more than a higher-ranking staff member who hasn’t been there as long, Zaagman said.

“They want people who will work their asses off,” he said. 

In China, this makes Huawei a company worth watching, he added. “Everyone wants to know how to do things like Huawei.”

But this same success at home may have helped contribute to its problems abroad.

“Huawei is seen as untouchable inside China,” said one Shanghai-based tech insider, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the giant company. “But outside China, it’s just another corporation and it’s subject to other countries’ laws.”

Yang Liu and Luna Lin contributed to this report.

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