INTERVIEW: Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei discusses how his company has been able to overcome US-imposed block

Alaa Thabet , Wednesday 30 Oct 2019

Huawei says it is already looking ahead beyond 5G technology, to a world of near instant data transfer and immersive online productivity

Huawei CEO and founder Ren Zhengfei (Reuters)
Huawei CEO and founder Ren Zhengfei (Reuters)

Despite the clampdown by the US administration against the Chinese tech giant Huawei, and despite being locked out of some Western markets, the corporation is enjoying global dominance in 5G technologies and is already working on 6G.

The Chinese giant was seen by the American administration as a threat to the US national security and thus liable to be blacklisted. But the alleged threat became a unifying drive for the corporation, its employees and researchers to bring to the world 100 percent Chinese technology products.

During my last visit to China, I decided to visit Huawei and look into its dilemma and how the company will be able to overcome this US-imposed stumbling block. At the time, the news came that the United Kingdom will grant Huawei access to the UK's 5G network.

Huawei campus in Shenzhen houses the company’s administration wing, key research and development facilities as well as a huge conference and 21 training centre called Huawei University.

More than 170,000 technicians and developers head to the campus everyday, where the 22-story glass-curtained tower is located. It is more of a city, where residency blocks of company’s employees are scattered around.

Huawei has grown sharply over the years, as it made quick inroads into networking equipment and smartphones, with revenue growing by 20 percent in 2018 from a year earlier, surpassing Apple Inc to become the second-largest maker of smartphones, behind Samsung.

The company was poised to capitalise on investment in the forthcoming 5G wireless technology, which is set to roll out in countries around the world.

But before the trade blacklisting, Washington had been pushing allies to avoid using Huawei’s 5G technology because of fears it could be used by Beijing to spy on or disrupt communication networks.

But first, Ren Zhengfei, the company’s founder and chairman, had a lot to say about his last visit to Egypt where he was impressed by new policies towards development, as well as the country’s long history.

Within the context of the ongoing establishment of a new administrative capital in Egypt, Ren feels that Cairo which is one of the four old civilisations in history, and is currently working on a vast political and economic development plan.

According to him, turning digital will have a great impact on the country’s 2030 strategic development plan launched in 2016.

The digital transformation of the economy and of industries is of great importance to Egypt where the IT and communication sector will play a vital role in empowering various industries, which calls for strong investment in the infrastructure sector, he added.

China is closely following up on these developments and is willing to support the country, especially in IT.

As part of its social responsibility, the Chinese tech giant is willing to help the country’s youth in education and fostering creativity. Ren believes that education is the main road to success and development, and despite all odds his company has been offering the world new opportunities and eye-opening technologies in the intelligent world.

In this year’s Huawei Connect meet, which is designed to help businesses and organisations step over the digital threshold, Huawei presented its Atlas AI computing platform.

Atlas AI is powered by Huawei Ascend series AI processors and mainstream heterogeneous computing components. According to Ren, it provides a rich array of product form factors, such as modules, cards, edge stations, and appliances, enabling all-scenario AI infrastructure solutions.

The chairman believes that Huawei Atlas is the product of heavy investment in research and development, ringed by the company over the past two years.

The company earmarked 15-20 percent of its annual revenue for research and is looking forward to increase that percentage during the coming five years, Ren said.

However, many believe that the big leap towards digital will negatively impact employment rates. In traditional industrial societies, Ren said, secondary school certificates were more than enough to get a good job. But ICT developments made it difficult for many to land a good job without high technological skills.

Yet, we should also consider that ICT will enhance societies’ resources because a lot of people left behind many traditional industries ventured into new ones.

“It is hard for many to drink a cup of coffee offered by a robot. Watching American sci-fi movies, I felt scared of a future where all services are offered by robots. But we should also realise that modern industries will soon witness big developments and millions of people will rely on that. Then the curtain will fall down on those incapable of coping with modern technology.”

5G technology has forced leading global operators to develop commercial deployment, and Huawei is one of them, Ren said.

On 5G networks, downlink peak data is 20 gigabits per second. Uplink peak data is 10 gigabits per second.

The Chinese giant has also unveiled its own mobile operating system, “Harmony”, in an effort to ensure that its fast-growing smartphone business can survive the US government’s clampdown on the firm.

The new operating system is designed to work not only on mobile phones but on smart watches and other connected home devices as well.

The first Huawei products to run Harmony will not be smartphones but smart screens that the company plans to release. Harmony, Ren said, will gradually be incorporated into the company’s other smart devices during the next three years.

It was said that Harmony could replace Android, but Huawei is yet to decide.

Naturally media will be affected by the current digital transformation. Ren believes that TV is a good revenue source for the media industry.

Within the framework of the traditional media industry, satellites were the sole player in this game, where we used to see the TV vans beaming transmissions live.

“Purchasing such vans will cost in our currency 50-to-80 million Yuan, but 5G technology could bring down the costs to 10,000 Yuan. The lightweight equipment could be carried to the nearest spot, plugged in and used in seconds.”

But progress came with problems.

The US clampdown on China has had its toll on Huawei. But Ren believes this will pass. He said that US attempts to limit the company’s development helped employees to be more united and work harder.

They felt that they should stand up to the US campaign and help Huawei clients understand that they can survive without American technology.

According to Ren, Huawei has been able to produce 100 percent Chinese made products "without a single American chip." But Ren also realises the importance of cooperation with other countries.

Meanwhile, the company which started developing 5G technology is currently working on 6G.

As far as the Third World and African states are concerned, digital transformation should be high on the government agenda, Ren said.

Leaders in Africa should look to digital transformation as a key national strategy that needs planning, cooperation and investment, to realise positive social and economic developments.

Investing in young people is the best approach in this regard. Ren said that 48 universities in Egypt took part in a competition organised by the company this year in China.

More than 8,000 college students took part, and Egyptian competitors came in second.

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