Who is Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei?

CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 3/13/2019, 11:48 a.m.
As he spent decades building one of the biggest tech companies on the planet, Ren Zhengfei kept a low public ...
Ren Zhengfei at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2015. He has built Huawei into a company with annual revenue of more than $100 billion.

By Sherisse Pham, CNN Business

(CNN) -- As he spent decades building one of the biggest tech companies on the planet, Ren Zhengfei kept a low public profile.

The billionaire founder of Chinese telecoms equipment giant Huawei rarely spoke to the media, letting his company's rapid growth around the world do the talking.

That's changing as Huawei finds itself threatened by a US campaign targeting its global operations. Ren, 74, is now pulling back the curtain on his company, his family and his life. He says the challenges Huawei faces are nothing out of the ordinary for him.

"I think there's always difficulties for me," he told CNN in an interview on Wednesday. "I never had smooth sailing because when I was young, my family background wasn't good. I had to work really hard to get even just a little bit of employment opportunity."

The college kid serving in China's military

Ren's time in the Chinese military has drawn widespread attention.

He joined the People's Liberation Army (PLA) as an engineer in 1974, during China's Cultural Revolution when the country was suffering from severe food and clothing shortages.

"At that time, there was chaos almost everywhere," Ren told reporters in January. He recalled that textile rations were so scarce that most people barely had enough to patch and repair clothes.

Ren was tasked with setting up a chemical factory to make textile fibers in northeast China, part of the communist government's plans to ensure every citizen had at least one decent piece of clothing.

"I had been to college, and people like me could play a role," he said.

Ren and his military comrades slept in shabby housing in subzero temperatures, living on pickled vegetables for months at a time. But he said he was happy at the time because while people elsewhere in China were being criticized for reading too many books during the Cultural Revolution, the factory "was probably one of the few places that people could read."

Ren said his hopes of becoming a lieutenant-colonel in the PLA were undermined by his family background. During the Cultural Revolution, his father had been labeled a "capitalist roader" — someone attempting to restore capitalism and overthrow socialism — making it hard for Ren to become a member of the ruling Communist Party.

After Ren successfully reverse engineered a tool that was needed to test equipment at the fiber factory, a supervisor helped him become a party member. But Ren never made it to military rank. His last job with the PLA was deputy director of a construction research institute.

Founding a tech giant

After the PLA, Ren spent a few years working for an oil company before founding Huawei in 1987.

China's market transformation was in full swing, and the country's poor telecommunications infrastructure was holding back progress.

Developing the industry became a priority for policy makers, and three state-owned enterprises — Great Dragon, Datang and ZTE — emerged as the dominant players.