China leaves Huawei founder off honor roll marking 40 years of economic success

In the lead up to China’s 40th anniversary of reforms and opening up, People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, published a list on Monday commending 100 extraordinary contributors to the country’s economic development.

Familiar names like Jack Ma of e-commerce operator Alibaba, as well as Pony Ma of gaming and social networking firm Tencent, made it to the short list, while one heavyweight was conspicuously missing: Ren Zhengfei, the 74-year-old founder and CEO of Chinese telecommunications behemoth Huawei.

While People’s Daily did not reveal the algorithms behind its nominating process, industry observers grappled with Ren’s absence and speculated why the father of the world’s largest telecom equipment manufacturer and second-largest smartphone maker was left off the rank.

One widely cited reason is the intentional coverup of Huawei’s alleged ties to the Chinese government in the backdrop of increasing U.S.-China trade tensions. In August, U.S. President Donald Trump signed a bill that would ban government agencies from using products and services from Huawei and its Chinese competitor ZTE over national security concerns.

Australia and New Zealand subsequently banned Huawei and ZTE as they joined a band of western countries that are increasingly wary of China’s influence around the world. In response, Huawei said it had never been asked to engage in intelligence work on behalf of any government.

As technology journalist Zheng Jun wrote on Weibo, Twitter’s Chinese equivalent, the attempt to “depoliticize” Huawei and “distance” it from the Chinese government may benefit the telecom giant.

Veteran media scholar Qian Gang echoed that view while suggesting an alternative explanation: perhaps the Chinese authority didn’t see Huawei’s achievement as being remarkable enough.

“Either [Ren] is in the unfortunate position of accepting his lot as one whose efforts do not constitute ‘outstanding achievement’ within the Party’s reform and opening pantheon (a political indignity), or he must eat the bitter fruit of concealment, tacitly accepting his compromisingly close links with the government,” Qian writes in an op-ed for the China Media Project.

Curiously, Ren was nominated by a similar list in October that commemorated China’s economic reforms, though the judges were different: the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce, a non-governmental chamber of commerce; and the United Front Work Department, an organ tasked with spreading the Party’s influence at home and abroad.

That winning the Party paper’s honor list is on par with an affinity with the government is little more than speculative. But Chinese companies, private or state-owned, are linked to the government to various extents.

A raft of internet firms have instituted internal Party committees — up to 65 percent in Jack Ma’s native Zhejiang Province per a party paper — and the central authority is reportedly taking small stakes in industry leaders, including Tencent and Alibaba, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Many have been taken aback by Jack Ma’s Communist Party affiliation, which the honor list mentioned. A Party school professor described the reaction as “a lack of knowledge” of the Party’s involvement in private businesses.

“Membership of the Party and corporate management are two unrelated things,” Su Wei, a professor at a Party School in the city of Chongqing, told Global Times, a paper under the People’s Daily. “The board of shareholders is in charge of decision-making and daily operations, while Party cells are set up to make sure the company’s operations are in line with the principles and policies of the CPC.”

For those who watch China closely, Ma’s political affiliation may come as no surprise as the fact came to light when Ma became the head of Zhejiang Merchants Association in 2015. It’s also worth noting that the bosses of Alibaba’s close competitors Pony Ma and Baidu’s Robin Li are non-Party members, the honor list shows.