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Davos Diary: Huawei’s Reclusive Founder Wants You to Know Just How Useless He Is

The world's largest telecommunications company's CEO spoke at Davos about how useless and ignorant he has been throughout his career.

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Huawei Founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei gestures as he attends a session of the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting on January 22, 2015 in Davos. AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

On Thursday morning, Huawei’s founder and President Ren Zhengfei gave an on-the-record and live-streamed interview with the BBC. Huawei is the world’s largest maker of telecommunications equipment, but a very poorly understood company — in part because the 70-year-old Ren only started giving interviews in 2013. “People say you’re harder to get in touch than Chinese leaders.” Chinese journalist Zhang Lifen bemoaned in the brief Q&A session following the talk. “Some journalists have been waiting until they’re basically retired to get a chance to talk with you.”

Ren seemed bemused by the comment. “I’m not mysterious at all,” he said. “More accurately, I’m not capable, I know nothing about technology, management, or finance. I just sit on top of the sedan, and all the people pull the car ahead, and I’m in the limelight.”

Extreme modesty is a good way to colorfully say very little. Throughout his talk, Ren brought up just how useless and ignorant he has been throughout his career — ignorant of the outside world, of management practices, of market forces. He relayed an anecdote about Huawei’s sponsorship of soccer teams — a mystery to him, because all he knows about the sport is that “the ball is round.” He ended the session by saying, “Maybe I’ve been wasting your time, thanks again.”

Ren wasn’t entirely evasive. The United States government alleges that Ren, who formerly served in China’s People’s Liberation Army, maintains links with the army that makes it a security risk. Ren said that Huawei has never received a request from the Chinese government to use Huawei equipment to tap into U.S. systems. And although he “advocates for” the Chinese Communist Party and loves his country, Ren said there’s no secret to Huawei’s success, and they have no special connections. “There is only one source of the money we make: the pockets of our customers,” he said. “If we don’t serve our customers we won’t get the money and our wives will run away.”

After the session, I went up to Ren and asked, in the spirit of openness and transparency he advocated in his session, if he’d be willing to do another interview. He accepted my business card, and gave me his own. I asked him a few times, and each time, instead of responding verbally — which would indicate some sort of comment, some sort of denial or possibility of acceptance — he smiled and gave a nearly imperceptible grunt. After the third or fourth grunt — each issued from a pleasantly smiling face, and none of which included any words or syllables or at all — I gave up and walked away. I was very impressed. It was the most masterful rejection I had ever witnessed.

(Disclosure: Stone Fish has done consulting work for the World Economic Forum in the past.)

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. @isaacstonefish

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