During 26 years at the helm of Chinese tech giant Huawei (華為), founder Ren Zhengfei (任正非) has never once agreed to be interviewed by a journalist.
During a visit to the company’s New Zealand operations, Ren sat down with four local journalists at a Wellington hotel. The rules were strict: no international media, no photographs.
However, the meaning was clear. Huawei is taking steps toward trying to dispel its image as a secretive and opaque company, and to reassure the world of its good intentions.
The Chinese telecommunications equipment company has suffered business setbacks in the US and Australia due to fears it could be a security risk.
In October last year, a US congressional panel recommended telephone companies avoid doing business with it.
Huawei issued a pledge not to cooperate with spying, and argues the US is engaging in trade protectionism.
Huawei has grown rapidly in developing countries and is increasing its sales in Europe. Last year, it reported a US$2.4 billion profit on sales of US$35 billion.
Ren, 68, a former Chinese military engineer, declined through spokesman Scott Sykes to be interviewed by The Associated Press.
Sykes said Ren felt more comfortable with a small group of journalists and chose New Zealand to break his silence because he has strong, positive feelings about the country “in his heart.”
In his interview, Ren, speaking through an interpreter, said his company’s relationship with the Chinese government was no different from that between companies from other countries and their governments, according to a report by Fairfax Media.
Ren said he was confident no member of Huawei’s staff would engage in spying, even if asked to by Chinese security agencies.
He said he had joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1978 when it was expected all “exceptional” people would do so.
“At that time my personal belief was to work hard, dedicate myself or even sacrifice myself for the benefit of the people,” he said, according to Fairfax Media. “Joining the Communist Party was in line with that aspiration.”
Sykes said the company is trying to tell its story and dispel misinformation.
He said that was particularly important as Huawei moves from doing business only with other telephone companies toward selling products such as smartphones directly to consumers.
New Zealand was the first developed country to sign a free-trade agreement with China in 2008 and has developed close economic ties since then.
Huawei employs about 120 people in New Zealand.
Last year it won a contract to work on the country’s broadband infrastructure — something it was denied in Australia — and this year it won a contract to help build a mobile network.
Ren owns 1.4 percent of Huawei. Forbes magazine last year estimated his wealth at US$475 million.