Person In The News: Ren Zhengfei

Person In The News: Ren Zhengfei

You've probably ever heard of Ren Zhengfei. But the billionaire founder of Chinese telecoms giant Huawei is arguably one of the most important private sector figures in global politics today. On Tuesday, the reclusive Mr. Ren spoke with the media for the first time in years, amid an escalating dispute between US and China that's seen his daughter arrested in Canada, where she is now fighting extradition to the US.


As that conflict continues to heat up, it's worth taking a look at one figure who's now playing a central role in the drama.

Why Ren matters: Huawei sells more smartphones than Apple and is the world's leading manufacturer of the gear that powers mobile data networks. The company is also set to play a key role in the development of next-generation 5G networks that will power the big innovations, like smart cities and driverless cars, at the center of the US-China struggle.

The US, worried about threats to national security, has effectively banned Huawei from building its 5G networks – and is pushing its allies to do the same. In December, Canadian authorities arrested Ren's daughter, Meng Wanzhou, who is also the CFO of Huawei, on US charges related to sanctions violations. Meng's fate, and Huawei's, could determine whether the US-China confrontation merely continues to simmer or flares up into something much bigger.

An accidental entrepreneur: Born to rural schoolteachers in one of China's poorest provinces, Ren studied as an engineer, then joined the People's Liberation Army – a career move he once told an interviewer happened only "by chance." Years later, in circumstances that remain murky, Ren emerged at the helm of one of a handful of Chinese companies working to reverse-engineer imported Western networking equipment.

Ren, who is now 74, once claimed to "know nothing" about either technology or finance. But somehow he grew Huawei, whose name can be translated as either "Chinese achievement" or "great action," into one of the biggest and most important technology companies in the world.

Western suspicions: Ren is something of a celebrity in China, where Huawei is admired as a technology success story. In the West, he's a virtual unknown – except among Western spooks, who have long harbored suspicions that he never really fully cut ties with the Chinese military. Justified or not, worries that Huawei might be willing to plant secret backdoors in its networking equipment that could allow Beijing to snoop on sensitive US military communications – or shut data networks down entirely during a crisis – are a key driver of the US campaign to exclude Huawei from global 5G networks.

Ren tried to downplay those concerns on Tuesday, saying he would decline any request to spy on the company's clients. "I love my country, I support the Communist Party," he said, "but I would not do anything to harm the world." No credible public evidence exists to date to suggest that Huawei has assisted Beijing to snoop on foreign networks.

He also tried to diminish the size of Huawei's role in the US-China trade conflict, saying the company was "only a sesame seed" and praising Donald Trump as a "great president" whose tax cuts would help business. Unfortunately for Ren, in the eyes of ascendant China hawks in Washington, Huawei looks less like a sesame seed and more like a big fat target.

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Even if the US, Europe, China, and India reduce carbon emissions at the rate they've promised, much climate damage has already been done. That shouldn't stop these and other countries from doing all they can to meet their net-zero emissions targets, but they also better start preparing for a world of people on the move.

Climate change will displace an unprecedented number of people in coming years, creating not just a series of humanitarian crises in many parts of the world, but lasting political, economic, and social upheaval as those of us who live on higher ground try to find a sustainable place for these climate refugees to live.

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When will it be safe for the world's children to be vaccinated against COVID-19? The World Health Organization's chief scientist, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, says that vaccines are being tested in children down to the age of six or even lower, and promises that data on children will be shared as soon as it's available. She also notes that there are not enough studies on transmission in schools, and the WHO has advised governments to prioritize schools "over other things like shopping malls or cinema halls or pubs." Dr. Swaminathan spoke with Ian Bremmer in an interview on GZERO World, airing on US public television stations starting April 9. Check local listings.

Watch the episode: Vaccine nationalism could prolong the pandemic

Over the past half century, climate change has had an immense impact on the farmers who produce the food we eat. A new study by Cornell University shows that global warming has knocked 21 percent off of global agriculture productivity growth since 1965, equivalent to seven years of normal growth if humans had not polluted the planet. But not all countries have been affected in the same say. Farmers in warmer parts of the world have been hit hard as conditions grow more arid, but sub-polar regions in Canada or Siberia are now actually better for agriculture because they are not as cold as they used to be. Here we take a look at how climate has affected farming productivity growth around the world.

On Tuesday, a major US intelligence report said the top threat to America right now is China. A day later, John Kerry, the Biden administration's "climate czar," got on a plane to... China.

Such is the drama of ties between the world's two largest economies these days.

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Should the Biden administration "reverse course on China" in the hope of establishing a friendlier relationship, as diplomat Kishore Mahbubani argues in a recent Financial Times op-ed? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Michael Hirson take out the Red Pen to explain why it's not that simple.

And today, we are talking about the United States and China. The relationship between the two most powerful nations in the world is the worst it's been since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Pundits and policymakers alike all around the world are trying to figure out how Washington and Beijing can at least stop the bleeding because a reset is nowhere in the cards.

That's the topic of the op-ed that we are looking at today. It's from the Financial Times, written by Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani, and the title summarizes the key argument: "Biden should summon the courage to reverse course on China." Meaning, he should throw out the Trump era approach and open the door to more cooperation and kinder, gentler relations.

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