WHEN Huawei CFO Sabrina Meng Wanzhou appeared on Wednesday in a Vancouver courtroom, clad in an unbranded green tracksuit, the moment was witnessed by a single reporter from the local Vancouver Sun newspaper who happened to notice her name on the hearings list that morning.
By the end of the day, Meng’s arrest in Canada at the request of Washington was the biggest story in the world.
And when her bail hearing resumed on Friday, Meng entered court to see about 100 reporters, craning to look at her through two layers of bulletproof glass.
Meng who faces extradition to the United States, was charged for helping Huawei allegedly cover up violations of US sanctions on Iran.
Like many top Chinese executives, Meng is a mysterious figure even in her home country, but the 46-year-old chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies had been widely tipped to one day take the helm of the tech giant her father founded.
That was until her shock arrest, a move that has entangled her in the protracted diplomatic tensions between Washington and Beijing.
Crucially, Meng is the daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei – one of China’s leading businessmen, an ex-People’s Liberation Army officer and an elected member of the 12th National Congress of the Communist Party of China.
In other words, Meng is part of China’s elite.
Her father Ren moves in the highest government circles in China and founded Huawei in 1988, after he retired from the Chinese armed forces. Born into a rural family in a remote mountainous town in the southwestern province of Guizhou, Ren rose to the equivalent rank of a deputy regimental chief in the PLA and served until 1983, according to his official Huawei biography.
Officials in some governments, particularly the United States, have voiced concern that his company is close to the Chinese military and government. Huawei has repeatedly insisted Beijing has no influence over it.
Ren is one of the most watched entrepreneurs in China and was on Time magazine’s list of 100 most influential people in the world in 2005 and again in 2013.
But like his elder daughter, Ren has largely kept a low profile.
Ren has married three times. His first wife was Meng Jun, daughter of a former senior official in Sichuan province, Meng Dongbuo; she bore Ren two children: Sabrina Meng Wanzhou and a son, Meng Ping.
Meng’s current wife is Yao Ling, who gave him a younger daughter, Annabel Yao, 20. In a rare move, the three posed last month for a family photoshoot for French lifestyle magazine Paris Match. Annabel, a Harvard computer science student, became a sensation at last month’s Le Bal des Debutantes (or Crillon Ball) in Paris.
Ren’s third wife is Su Wei who, according to Chinese media reports, is a millennial who was formerly his secretary.
Interestingly, all his children opted not to take on their father’s surname – Meng adopted her mother’s surname after her parents divorced. According to Chinese news websites, Meng’s brother Ping, who also works for Huawei, followed her in taking their mother’s surname to “avoid unnecessary attention” – though the son was also known as Ren Ping in the past.
(This practice is not uncommon among the families of China’s elite. The co-founder of Chinese auction house China Guardian, Wang Yannan, opted not to take her father’s surname – she is the daughter of late Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang.)
Born in 1972, Meng joined the company in 1993, obtained a master’s degree from Huazhong University of Science and Technology in 1998, and rose up the ranks over the years, mostly holding financial roles.
In her first media appearance before the Chinese press in 2013, Meng said she had first joined the company as a secretary“whose job was just to take calls”.
In the interview with China’s 21st Century Business Herald, Meng said she began her first job at China Construction Bank after graduating with her first degree in 1992.
“I joined Huawei one year later because a branch closed its operations due to the business integration [of CCB],” said Meng, describing her early jobs in Huawei as “very trivial”.
Meng has served in various roles at the company since, until her latest role as the Hong Kong-based CFO of Huawei.
In 2003, Meng established Huawei’s globally unified finance organisation, with standardised structures, financial processes, financial systems, and IT platforms.
Since 2005, Meng has led the founding of five shared service centers around the world, and she was also the driver behind completion of a global payment center in Shenzhen, China. These centres have boosted Huawei’s accounting efficiency and monitoring quality, providing accounting services to sustain the company’s rapid overseas expansion.
Meng has also been in charge of the integrated financial services (IFS) transformation program, an eight-year partnership between Huawei and IBM since 2007. This has helped Huawei develop its data systems and rules for resource allocation, and improve operating efficiency and internal controls.
In recent years, Meng has focused on advancing detailed financial management at Huawei, working to align these efforts with the company’s long-term development plans.
Meng’s importance at Huawei became apparent in 2011, when she was first named as a board member. Company insiders describe her as capable and hardworking. Earlier this year, Huawei promoted Meng, to vice-chairwoman as part of a broader reshuffle. Meng is one of four executives who hold the vice-chair role, while retaining her CFO position. Despite assertions by Ren that none of his family members would succeed him in the top job, it is widely speculated that she was being groomed to take over the reins of the company eventually.
Married with a son and a daughter, Meng’s revelation that her husband did not work in the industry, dispelled the speculation she was married to a senior Huawei executive.
Meng did not conduct public interviews before 2013 and has seldom mentioned her personal life until recently, when she used her son to illustrate the importance of persistence.
“My son did not want to go swimming one day and he almost knelt on the ground and begged my husband so that he would not have to go. But he was rejected,” Meng said in a speech at Chongqing international school in 2016. “Now my son is proud to represent his school in swimming competitions.”
Meng recently made a speech at a Singapore academic conference in 2018, in which she talked of Huawei’s future role in technology development.
“Without universities, the world would be left in darkness. Without industry, science would be left in the ivory tower,” said Meng. “The fourth industrial revolution is on the horizon and artificial intelligence is one of its core enabling technologies. Huawei is lucky to be part of it.”
While her brother, Meng Ping, as well as her father’s younger brother and his current wife all work at Huawei and related companies, none has held such senior management roles.
“The other family members are in the back office, Sabrina is CFO and sits on the board,” a Huawei source said. “So she is viewed as the boss’s most likely successor.”
But her fate now is uncertain.
She faces up to 30 years’ jail for the alleged crime. Her lawyer in Canada, David Martin, had told the court that Meng posed no flight risk and should be granted bail. To flee would shame her in front of her father and all of China, said Martin.
“Her father would not recognise her. Her colleagues would hold her in contempt. She would be a pariah,” he said.
Meng leaned forward in her seat and dabbed at her eyes with a tissue.
When the hearing adjourned, she was led away with her head bowed, a goldfish in a bowl that is the biggest story in the world. – South China Morning Post
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