I’m just coming back after a week’s absence, so thought I would mark my return by writing about one of my favorite subjects: Ren Zhengfei, the super-shy founder of telecoms giant Huawei Technologies. I don’t usually believe in conspiracy theories, but if I did I might be starting to wonder if Ren is really the powerful and insightful person Huawei keeps describing for us. Instead, I might be starting to wonder if perhaps Ren was a myth created for public consumption, much like the title character in the famous novel “The Wizard of Oz” turned out to be a modest, largely powerless man instead of the powerful wizard he wanted everyone to believe he was.
My reason for putting forth this theory, which I’ll openly admit is highly unlikely and mostly playful thinking, is the growing tendency by Ren to present himself to the world through third-party channels rather than directly speaking at any public events or to individual media. Such third-party channels have included internal company emails, the text of speeches given at internal company events, and comments from other company executives.
In one of the latest examples of such strangeness, we’re reading the newest words of wisdom delivered by Ren at a recent company board meeting. (Chinese article) Huawei obviously released the comments in as part of its ongoing effort to show Ren, the man, at the center of the company he founded 2 decades ago that has now become the world’s second largest telecoms equipment maker.
Let’s take a quick look at the comments, which have Ren warning his fellow board members of the dangers of corruption from inside the company by its own executives. Ren reportedly told the board after their January 14 meeting that top managers need to maintain their integrity and not use their positions for personal gain. The remarks are quite candid and certainly aren’t unusual, but the manner of their release continues the recent pattern I’ve described above.
In another recent example, Huawei released remarks made by Ren as recorded by another internal third-party channel, in this case the company’s global Chief Security Officer John Suffolk. (remarks) Suffolk wrote extensively of his meeting with Ren, including a large number of direct quotes, again trying to bring a human side to a man who never does media interviews and seldom appears at public events.
Ren’s extreme shyness is a bit bizarre, considering that he’s the top man at such a big company and the fact that he often addresses large groups of people internally. That shyness is one of the main reasons why many speculate that Huawei may have some murky government connections with Beijing, since he has never publicly come out to discuss his former role as an engineer in the People’s Liberation Army before he founded Huawei. Those kinds of potential government links were the major factor that led Washington to ban Huawei and crosstown rival ZTE (HKEx: 763; Shenzhen: 000063) last year from selling their networking equipment in the US.
I’m not trying to tell Ren how to run his business, since clearly he’s quite good at that. But he could do a much better job in terms of personal public relations, starting with raising his profile by attending some big public events and doing some interviews with major Chinese and western media. He doesn’t even need to say anything substantive at any of these events or interviews, which is quite usual for many top company executives who are often extremely conservative in their public comments.
As long as he continues to avoid the public spotlight and speak through this kind of strange third-party channel, people are going to wonder about Ren and his connections with Beijing. Some conspiracy theorists may even take the more extreme view and start to wonder if Ren is even the powerful figure that Huawei claims, or just a shadowy “Wizard of Oz” figure controlled by others in Beijing or elsewhere.
Bottom line: Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei needs to become a more public figure instead of speaking through others, or risk continued suspicion about his potential connections with Beijing.
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This article was first published in the online edition of the South China Morning Post at www.scmp.com.