Ren Zhengfei's trip to the U.S. almost three decades ago

The Huawei founder's admiration for America remains to this day.

The last Pekingnology newsletter, a translation of Ren Zhengfei’s My Father and Mother written in 2001, was apparently well-received, as the autobiography unveiled many personal details from the Huawei founder.

Prompted by that, this newsletter will run another translation of Ren’s article, published almost three decades ago, where he recounted his trip to the United States.

This newsletter hopefully will put one interesting detail about Ren into perspective: despite his daughter being kept in Canada under a U.S. extradition request and his company facing a life-and-death crisis because of the U.S., China’s most celebrated entrepreneur consistently states his admiration, respect, and arguably affection for the United States of America.

In January 2020, your Pekingnologist was in Davos, Switzerland to cover the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. He was surprised to hear Ren say “Huawei is a very pro-U.S. company. The reason that Huawei is so successful today is that the overwhelming majority of its management (system) was learned from the U.S. So the U.S. should be proud. Its exports to us helped our development. So, speaking from this, the U.S. doesn’t have to be too concerned with Huawei’s position and development in the world.”

Caixin, China’s leading business magazine, still has that video episode on its website. Yuval Noah Harari has the whole 30-min conversation up on his YouTube channel.

It’s perhaps easy to dismiss Ren’s remarks as just PR talk - but have you ever heard another high-profile Chinese entrepreneur say his or her business is 亲美 “pro-U.S.” in public?

Ren apparently didn’t shy away from showing his feelings about America in recent years. In March 2019, CNN reported - in the caption under a photo, though - after an interview that "Ren Zhengfei said he loves the United States, but it risks undermining its reputation as a global hub for business.”

Most recently, Ren had this Q & A with Huawei’s model employees on May 8, 2021:

Q: Due to the US sanctions, our business is very difficult, do we have to firmly localize (our business) in China down the road in the future?

A: Is China part of the world? Yes. So our insistence on globalization also includes localization. We can't go to isolation, we must remain open. We still have to insist on learning from the United States, which has accumulated for a hundred years and has a flexible mechanism, and is still much stronger than us in science and technology. I often see netizens on the Internet asking, "Is the United States that Chen Ping [an online pundit] talks about the same United States that Ren Zhengfei talks about? Chen Ping talks about social issues, and I talk about science, education, and technology issues, from different perspectives, on the same United States. Social issues are too complicated, leave them for politicians to explain; science is the truth, there is only one answer; science and education are more simple, the United States is strong in this regard, its century-old foundation is more solid. We must not think that the United States is not a teacher because it suppresses us and (as a result we) do not learn from the United States, which will lead to self-imposed isolation.

So, what’s Ren’s first story with America?

The following translation is based on 赴美考察散记 Notes from a Trip to America published on Page 5 of Huawei’s internal newspaper 华为人 Huawei People on Jan. 28, 1994.

It can be accessed via Huawei’s Xinsheng Community, an online forum open to the general public featuring corporate documents, executives’ speeches or emails, and employee discussions.

Again, this is just a personal newsletter that may very well make mistakes. Huawei neither sponsored nor prompted this or the last newsletter.

Before we go, one question: what is the name of the film that Ren went into great detail about towards the end of the article?

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Notes from a Trip to America

by Ren Zhengfei

The plane flew through Tokyo, across the Pacific Ocean and the continental United States, and arrived in Boston on the side of the Atlantic Ocean. I got sick as soon as I left China and started vomiting at the Hong Kong airport, and with the jet lag lasting for more than 20 hours, I kept tossing and turning until the central city of Dallas.

Boston is a beautiful city and is the birthplace of the Civil War, but also the window for Europe to the exploration and development of the American continent. The old houses were neatly tidied up and painted with rustic paint. The beauty of the city lies in the small patches of forest that are preserved everywhere in the city.

Along the streets are green grass, grass on which broad-leaved trees are planted. From these maple trees and oak trees, the leaves are going to fall completely in winter. Now it was autumn, the leaves were red, green, yellow, yellow-green, brown, crimson ......, in the sunlight, they were transparent and picturesque. Some leaves have floated down and spread over the green grass as if a colorful carpet.

When we were young, we were attracted by the reputation of Xiang Shan (in Beijing) and traveled thousands of kilometers to see the red leaves. This time we took Greyhound for thousands of kilometers, and everywhere as wonderful as Xiang Shan - the natural scenery was even more beautiful than Xiang Shan.

The American people have been protecting the environment for hundreds of years, which is amazing. In the trees along the streets of New York, small squirrels run around. In front of some hotels, hundreds or thousands of birds descend on trees in the evening, and it is only natural that the birds fly into the crowds and houses.

Our country’s land is roughly equal to that of the United States. Tibet and Xinjiang take up a lot, and the mountains of the Yunnan-Guizhou plateau take up a part, leaving less than half of the country housing 1.2 billion people. The lack of funding for education, the low quality of education, and the blind growth of the population require that even the edge of the farmlands have to be cultivated [for food], how can there be mountains, forests, and meadows left.

Our educational conditions are still very difficult, the population is growing day by day, (but) access to education and the level of education are lower than in developed countries. In a fast-developing information society, low literacy is dragging down the entire economic development.

Developed countries use some silicon wafers in exchange for a large number of our peanuts. We often consider this an unequal exchange. This time, we generally come to believe that the United States has a high level of education and knowledge, its science and technology are more developed. The underdeveloped countries could only exchange a lot of primary products for a small number of high technology products from the developed countries. The former is available everywhere and the price follows some patterns, the latter is unique and the price can be set (by the developed countries) to repay the risky investment in development and production and the premium for talent. This is not exploitation.

Of course, in this way, the more educated people get richer, and the richer they have more access to education, exacerbating inequality. If developing countries do not realize that having fewer children and better children and developing education is the real solution, then this gap will be unbridgeable in the 21st century.

Lamentation aside, I think back to the 1920s and 1930s when our countrymen called for using education to save the country, but they were not understood by society and their patriotism was misinterpreted. In the 1960s and 1970s, nobody even dared to mention education for national salvation anymore, and still, no one understood it. What was believed at the time was the more you read, the dumber you are. As we have seen this (in the U.S.) and begin to think, we call out loudly for using education to save the country. Our company's policy of gathering talents and increasing the concentration of talent is correct, although it temporarily increases the cost of production.

Our trip to Boston was to visit a company called CP that specializes in power supplies. We visited and were briefed on ceramic-based, aluminum-based modular power supplies, which were more advanced, smaller, and more efficient. CP described that they were sold at about $2 per piece. There were several similar manufacturers in the U.S. that are larger and more technologically advanced than CP.

CP is considered a small company in the US. From this window, I saw the very persistence in research and the seriousness of the American people, and I saw the orderly and well-organized management just like a gentleman's manners. All kinds of documents were very clear, accurate, and well-covered. It was a successful system.

During the whole tour, we deeply felt that Americans are practical, very dedicated, and serious. They had the work style of seeking excellence and were not conservative in their academic researches. That is worth learning for us.

Americans do not have as many lofty ideals as the Chinese, nor do they have the empty ambitions for the motherland and the world in mind, nor are they as full of illusions as we are.

This nation's practical, indomitable spirit of working hard is worth learning for us. The space shuttle, large-scale silicon wafers, super-large computers, super-miniature terminals, developed and excellent telecommunication equipment, and testing instruments were created by the hard work of the American people. These things do not come from looting or plundering.

We stayed in CP for more than a day and a half, and we would leave Boston tomorrow, and it was raining for the remaining half day. In the rain, we visited the campuses of Harvard University and MIT, which had produced many heroic figures for the world. More than 1/4 of the students were Asian. They said the 18th century was the century of Spain, the 20th century was the century of America, and the 21st century is the century of Asia.

This is exactly a ray of light. With the implementation of the market economy policy from the 14th National Congress [of the Communist Party], the competition for talent will happen on Chinese soil. Only when knowledge has a price, there will be a thirst for talent. When there is a thirst for talent, education will be valued.

The bell of Project Hope, ringing over and over again, is shattering people's dreams of money. Without revitalizing education, it is impossible to revitalize China. However poor we are, we must give money to education.

Taiwan and South Korea are our role models. The large number of scholars who have returned to work in Taiwan has added much impetus to the Taiwanese economy.

We (then) left Boston, took a six-hour bus ride to New York, and stayed at the Chinese Consulate. A few meals of corn mush were so delicious. The biggest problem in the U.S. is that I can't get used to the food. Americans eat very simply.

New York is the largest and most prosperous city in the United States, but also the dirtiest one with the worst social order, but the order was still much better than our city of Shenzhen. Because we were passing by, we only had a quick glance. We visited Central Park and the American Museum of Natural History. It is hard to understand that in such a busy city center, there is such a big piece of primitive forest-like central park. The forest was so beautiful, the birds were clinging to people, and the squirrels were teasing people. Everything is so harmonious and lovely.

Central Park is so big, we walked for half a day, and when we looked at the map, we realized that we had walked past just a small corner. In order to know how big it is, we rented a cab and asked the driver to take us around it. Because the driver was afraid of riots from some African Americans, the cab ride cost us the equivalent of more than 100 yuan.

With only one hour left, we visited the American Museum of Natural History and wanted to run through it in a hurry to get a glimpse. We knew we were wrong as soon as we entered. The exhibits inside are so superb and so lifelike that in some places it is like rejoining nature and the primitive society.

The world's various rare and exquisite products, collected and arranged according to the laws of nature were so harmonious and so rich. No wonder people used to say that their doctoral thesis was written in the museum. It is really the best classroom for studying the development of society and nature.

Seeing the visit of hordes of American children, my heart was infinitely emotional, I wonder how many more of them are growing up to be the talents who would invent tomorrow's atomic bombs and space shuttles - the United States will prosper forever.

For one hour, we were running in a bid to see more of the museum, but we did not even finish one corner of the first floor of the five-story building. It would take a month to see the whole museum.

The more prosperous one country is, it emphasizes the development of science and technology; the more emphasis one country puts on the development of science and technology and education, the more talents it will produce; the more talents the country produces, the more prosperous the economy becomes, realizing a virtuous circle.

Thinking of the vast majority of rural schools in China are still in dilapidated buildings, thinking of Project Hope in China is not yet highly recognized by the people, and worrying about the country and the people, a shadow was cast on our hearts.

We passed through Philadelphia and saw the family of a Chinese student (who was already working) with an annual income of about $40,000. It was very cold in winter and they would not turn on the heat. The young wife told me: this way they can save $100 a year. The relatives at home wanted them to send $10,000. They didn't dare to go back to China. The food and appliances were very simple.

The Chinese are frugal and saving for future generations, while the Americans spend wildly and make friends. Chinese people are always trapped in the circle of Chinese friends, never jumping into the ‘money nest’; even in the rich United States, the Chinese were still poor. Americans make more friends, then have better opportunities, and go on to make more money. 80% of success in life is in opportunity.

On Monday we flew into Dallas, the home of Texas Instruments, a 60,000-acre headquarters. Once we arrived, we proposed to visit the factory. Its Asia-Pacific manager told us that there was no factory here, the factories were scattered in more than 100 places around the world to package integrated circuits.

The headquarters mainly housed the research and sales teams. We noted that their president and chairman of the board of directors were working in a relatively simple one-story building with a relatively dilapidated periphery, but the regional sales managers were working in a tall glass-walled building, which was very clean and quiet.

Texas Instruments was very hospitable to our visit and introduced us to many high-speed devices that we had never heard of before. The company's presentation was very structured, mainly using projection equipment, film, and technical descriptions that were logically edited. From morning to evening, we were introduced to the company, and we learned a lot about Texas Instruments. The Americans usually finish work at 4 p.m., and they worked so many extra hours for us, which was rare.

We visited the DMOS silicon wafer manufacturing, which was very advanced. The United States has begun to retain manufacturing in its own territory for the most core part of its industry and transferred the rest of the manufacturing to their branches across the world, in order to reduce costs and enhance competitiveness.

This was felt even more strongly after visiting Silicon Valley. Dallas is a city in central Texas, which was originally a grassland, similar to Inner Mongolia of our country. Originally poor, Texas became a rich state in the United States because of the discovery of oil, and the development of science and technology was triggered by oil. The high-tech development zone in Daqing, China, called on scientific and technology workers to “go to sea” [leave state organizations to start businesses in the market] and establish all kinds of businesses away from oil. In a few decades, when Daqing runs out of oil, China will have a Texas technology zone. Any leader has to look longer.

We purposefully went to Las Vegas for the CES. There were about half a million people attending. There were few Chinese and even fewer Chinese mainlanders. If the Chinese don't get out and see what's going on, and instead divorce from reality, not only are we unlikely to catch up with others, but we may fall off the train of the times.

We are already in the delicate period of entry into the World Trade Organization and should maintain a good understanding of the market and technology. The company [Huawei] will arrange for colleagues to go out and have a late, one batch after another.

The city of Las Vegas is a vast sea of sand. The entire city has no buildings except hotels and international convention centers, and the lobby of the hotel is a casino, so it has the ability to accommodate nearly a million people at once. Especially at night, it is perhaps the most beautiful city in the United States. Buildings like Caesars Palace are jaw-dropping, so beautiful, and opulent. There is also a tropical rainforest in the hotel lobby.

Visiting this international exhibition [CES], we only had one day. So we scrambled through the halls and barely managed to go through one hall. After that, we learned that there were seven halls and it would take at least seven days. It was an eye-opener to the development of the computer industry internationally. We found the feeling that our computer industry would go down, and that if we do not put everything into developing the technology we will eventually lose all the market.

Huawei has taken the right path in the past few years. It is not enough. It should boldly go forward and forward. Only by visiting this exhibition, we could appreciate what is a technology crisis and market crisis. Wang Laboratories, which three years ago had annual sales of $3.5 billion, had now declared bankruptcy. Japan's Mitsubishi, such a powerful group, withdrew from computer production. This strong sense of crisis drives the whole world forward. Huawei is placed by history in a position of either advance or retreat. The sea of science is boundless, there is no shore to turn back to, and if one misses the opportunity to develop, everything will be lost.

Our last stop was Silicon Valley. Santa Clara is a small place in California with 4.8 million people and surprisingly no industry. The electronics and cutting-edge industries of the United States have their research facilities here, and IBM's headquarters is said to cover an incredible 400 square miles. We rented a cab and went inside at least 6 to 7 kilometers in diameter, but it was still unclear how big it is.

HP, NS, AMD, INTEL ...... are all here. Therefore, when visiting the United States, one can learn about electronics technology in the whole country just by being in Silicon Valley.

If independently calculated, California's economy is in eighth place in the world. We visited NS (National Semiconductor). It has over 6,000 researchers and no factory in Silicon Valley. After listening to their presentation on a series of new devices such as optical devices, we saw the rise of the world's third-generation switching network and the emergence of new technologies that will change the world market in a big way.

[In tech development] We started late, and others had been going for several years, and we were just starting. We spend money to buy these devices, so we get to the world’s level as soon as possible; of course, there is still a lot of software to do.

In Silicon Valley, what we felt most deeply was that as if every pulse was very strong. We saw that our research methods were still very backward, our research management was still very low, our efficiency was still far from the developed countries.

Thankfully, the capacity of our employees is no worse than that of American companies. Therefore, to catch up with the United States, a very important one is to improve management. Silicon Valley is the most expensive in the United States due to labor costs, land, and whatever else is available. That's why companies only keep their research and sales organizations in Silicon Valley, while industries move to the United States or other parts of the world.

Some Chinese media reports that ‘Silicon Valley is deteriorating’ or that ‘Sunset over Silicon Valley’ is wrong. Silicon Valley is still undergoing a new takeoff in the information industry, not a decline. Therefore, our company decided to buy a house in the central area of Silicon Valley and set up a development center to optimize half-finished products and results of scientific researches. After that, we would move them back to Shenzhen for manufacturing. We applied for registration of a Huawei wholly-owned 兰博 Lanbo Technology Co. Lanbo is a transliteration, which means the head of the goddesses of the sea. [The spelling may be incorrect.]

Via Los Angeles, we started to return to our home country. On the plane, I watched a movie about the development of the West of the United States. It depicted a rich English lady who did not want to depend on her parents for a quiet life. With a newspaper that said every explorer in the West could have 160 acres of land for free, she was ready to run to the United States. She attempted to make an appointment with a hired man who had been arrested by her father. The man refused. The next morning she escaped in a private car, passing through the penal colony, pulling the man into the car, and running. The young man had to follow her to Boston. Boston at that time was poorer than the rural parts of China's Shaanxi.

The lady on the ship (to America) trusted a con man and entrusted him to sell the silver cutlery she had brought with her. As a result, she was cheated and left without a penny. The lady and the man then both began to be on equal footing of poverty in America.

In order to save money for going to the West, the young man went to the boxing ring, and the young lady went to wash clothes. After all the hardships, they finally sprang into love. The human hardship described in the film was more real and touching than all our films.

When they were hungry, they broke into an unoccupied home and ate desperately. But they were taken as bad guys and the lady was shot. When the lady was dying, the young man carried her to the inn of her lover (a military officer who came pursuing her from Britain). Because he was penniless, he could not save her. They parted in a hurry. The man walked while repairing the railroad and finally reached the west. After the lady recovered from her wound, she also went to the West with her husband [supposedly the military officer from Britain]. When they saw each other, they were both sad and happy.

At that time, there was not so much land in the West. The local government had to decide on the distribution of land by small flags on each piece of land and decreed that on a certain day, whoever ran first and planted his or her flag first, the land would go to him or her.

The young man bought a very strong horse for this purpose. Before the run (to claim the land), someone fouled and ran first, and the judge could not call the person back for a re-run, so the judge ordered the musketeer to shoot the person who had broken the rule.

Once everyone set off, there was wind and smoke, and some carts ran apart and overturned. The lady's husband [supposedly the military officer from Britain] fell in the river and died. The young man finally ran to the land, and the lady also came, but the fiery horse tripped the man into a serious injury. The lady went to rescue him, forgetting to plant the flag. Only when everyone else came up, she went to plant the flag. The man was already unconscious and only opened his eyes slightly when the flag was planted. And that’s the end of the film.

It makes you think about what they achieved. When the lady gets the land, all the people she cared about were probably all gone. In a desert without love, desperate land reclamation led to the prosperous West today.

The hardship of developing the West in America back then far exceeds the hardship we have today. America's prosperity has been the result of generations of sacrifice. The American people are overwhelmingly hard-working and eager to learn. We should learn from their indomitable spirit of working hard and make our due efforts to revitalize China.

I have been to the United States and Japan many times since then, and I felt more deeply every time. The only way for a nation to save itself is to have an indomitable and meticulous spirit of working hard, and “We want no condescending saviors to rule us from a judgment hall.” The only way to revitalize our Chinese nation is to be practical and face our weaknesses. The shattering of generations of dreams of prosperity has made us feel more deeply the profound meaning of learning from the United States in technology and Japan in management.

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You should read Ren Zhengfei’s My Father and Mother in case you have missed it.