The once-reclusive 75-year-old has emerged as the public face of Huawei, giving more interviews this year than in the previous 20 as the company tries to win over global opinion.
“What I care about is patching up the holes in Huawei's ‘aircraft,’ so we can land safely despite the U.S.’s attacks,” Ren told The Washington Post in an interview on Huawei’s Shenzhen campus. He sat in a ostentatious Greek-style hall bedecked with four caryatids, the draped female figures used in columns — a style first seen in Delphi 2 ½ millennia ago.
But Ren’s problems are very much contemporary, and much closer to home.
After enjoying a surge in patriotic solidarity as the United States assailed it, with Chinese consumers even giving up their Apple iPhones in favor of Huawei handsets, the tech giant has been accused on the Chinese Internet of being a “mafia-like” company.
“This corporation is really disgusting,” tech blogger William Long wrote on Twitter recently, after censors deleted his posts on China’s Weibo microblogging site.
Huawei’s domestic problems began late last month when a court ruling circulated online. It showed that Li Hongyuan, an engineer who had worked for Huawei for 12 years, had been awarded $15,300 in government compensation for being wrongfully detained by Chinese police for almost nine months.
Li said he negotiated a $42,000 severance package after being forced to leave his job because he reported his department manager for inflating sales figures. But when he did not receive the end-of-year bonus he expected, he sued Huawei for it, according to interviews he gave to local media outlets. He was soon detained and charged with extortion.
While he was in custody, his wife found an audio recording that Li had secretly made of his severance negotiations and presented it to the court as proof of his innocence. The court dismissed the charges and Li was released.
The document emerged around the same time that Ren’s daughter, Meng Wanzhou, released a flowery letter lamenting her year of house arrest in one of her Vancouver mansions, where she is contesting a U.S. extradition request on charges of breaching American sanctions against Iran.
The contrast between Li’s situation and Meng’s angered Chinese netizens, reflecting what many view as unfairness in a system that conveys preferential treatment on politically connected tycoons while denying due process to ordinary workers.
Popular blogger “Shou Lou Chu” wrote that Huawei was “an evil elephant” trampling on “ants” like Li. One of the top comments on the post, from “Rainman,” drew a direct connection between Chinese support for Meng and Huawei’s treatment of Li: “We got your back when you were bullied out there, and now we will oppose you when you try to bully one of our own.”
Many criticisms were swiftly deleted by Communist Party censors, but detractors began typing “251” under Meng’s post — for the number of days Li was detained — and “404,” the error code for when a web page cannot be found.
Huawei responded to the criticism by saying Li was welcome to sue the company, a point that Ren repeated in the interview, while adding that he was “not familiar with the specifics of this case.”
“I have only heard that this case is not a labor dispute,” Ren said in his first public remarks about the tension. “Why the judicial authorities arrested him in the first place and what has been going on through the courts, we certainly do not have the specifics about those.”
Li, who has since gone to ground, told local media outlets that he had met a number of former Huawei employees in the Shenzhen detention center who were facing similar charges.
One was Zeng Meng, who said he was arrested in Thailand last December while negotiating leave payments he said he was owed. He was also detained in Shenzhen on allegations of extortion and spent 90 days in custody, according to local reports.
Ren denied knowledge of this or other cases. But they pose perhaps a greater challenge to Huawei than the Trump administration’s measures.
Huawei has relied on domestic support to protect its earnings in recent months, as the U.S. trade ban has hurt its business overseas. As its cellphone sales suffered in the West, they continued to soar in China. An erosion of Chinese support could threaten this financial backstop.
“If domestic consumers were no longer so in love with Huawei, that could be a very big problem,” said Dan Wang, a tech analyst at the Gavekal Dragonomics consultancy in Hong Kong. “It would be ironic if Huawei managed to resist U.S. pressure, only to have domestic consumers to be its ultimate source of defeat.”
Asked about the Communist Party’s effort to scrub the Chinese Internet of criticism of Huawei, Ren said he had “no idea” who did it.
“How could we know this was something done by the government?” he said. “Huawei has received many positive comments, so some negative comments could be even helpful to us.”
But Ren, a party member, declined to criticize China’s Great Firewall, which severely restricts access to outside information and deletes domestic content that is not in line with the party’s aims.
“We didn’t build the Great Firewall. We offer connectivity to the world,” Ren said, repeatedly avoiding commenting on censorship that affects consumers’ ability to access information on his devices. Instead, he said that China would not have to block sites such as Facebook and The Washington Post if President Trump had not “closed its door first and launched a campaign that aimed to crush Huawei.”
After Li’s case became public, one of Ren’s top lieutenants suggested that the United States was using the former engineer “as a pawn” to smear Huawei’s reputation.
Yu Chengdong, the chief executive of Huawei’s consumer business, shared a social media post alleging that American “black hands” were behind negative publicity. “They just spent months doing shameful things in Hong Kong, and now they are preying on Huawei,” it said, referring to the pro-democracy uprising in the Chinese-ruled financial center.
Asked if he shared these concerns, Ren laughed and called Yu a word that his interpreter rendered as “bad guy” but that is more commonly translated as “bastard.” “You should really interview that bastard, not me,” Ren said with a smile, adding that there was no evidence for the claims, so Yu should not have made them.
With that, Ren’s aide cut the interview short, but the chief executive wasn’t quite done. He gave The Post an introduction to the art in the Greek hall, which included several paintings featuring Napoleon Bonaparte — a man who was ultimately defeated.