Ren Zhengfei, the reclusive founder of Huawei, has used his first major public appearance since 2015 to refute allegations of espionage.
The challenges facing the Chinese networking giant are both multiplying and escalating, with several nations expressing concern about the use of Huawei’s equipment in their telecoms infrastructure.
Meanwhile, Zhengfei’s daughter and company CFO Meng Wanzhou is currently being held in Canada as US officials attempt to extradite her to face charges of fraud related to alleged dealings with Iran.
On top of that, a Huawei employee has been arrested on allegations of spying – although Huawei has dismissed that person and distanced itself from their alleged actions.
Speaking to foreign reporters at Huawei’s headquarters in China for the first time in four years, Zhengfei said he and the company had never spied on behalf of the Chinese government and had no intentions of doing so.
“No law requires any company in China to install mandatory back doors,” the Wall Street Journal quotes him as saying. “I personally would never harm the interest of my customers and me and my company would not answer to such requests.”
The incidents come amid a backdrop of trade and diplomatic tensions between China and the US. Zhengfei called Donald Trump a “great president” and said any escalation would be bad for the global economy – not least Huawei’s customers.
Huawei has effectively been frozen out of the US market, although it does provide equipment to a number of smaller players in the country, while Australia has banned its operators from using Huawei equipment in their 5G rollouts on national security grounds. It has also been reported that the US is urging its allies to take similar actions.
The main basis for these fears is a perception that Huawei is linked to the Chinese government and that the use of the company’s equipment risks the possibility of backdoors that could be used for espionage. These fears are heightened by 5G because of the sensitive information these networks will carry.
Part of the reason behind the apparent mistrust is Zhengfei himself. Prior to founding Huawei in the 1980s, he served as an engineer in the Chinese military and attended the 1982 National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. He told reporters he was invited as a reward for a device he invented while in the army.
“Today I still love my country,” he reportedly said. “I support the Communist Party of China, but I will never do anything to harm any other nation.”
Huawei has repeatedly denied such accusations, pointing out that it works with security agencies around the world and that it sells products to more than 500 operators in 170 countries without issue. This includes the UK, where BT, EE, Vodafone and Three are all customers.
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Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.