Meng Wanzhou had been groomed for decades to join the ranks of China’s business royalty.
She started in the early 1990s on the switchboard of her father’s company, Huawei Technologies, the world’s largest maker of telecommunications network equipment. So began a quiet, but steady, rise that was widely viewed as a bottom-to-top apprenticeship to one day take the helm of Huawei from her father, Ren Zhengfei.
Meng’s carefully built world is now caught in a showdown between China and the United States with potential economic and diplomatic ramifications.
Meng, Huewei’s chief financial officer, is set to appear in court Friday in Vancouver, Canada, for a bail hearing after being arrested while changing planes Saturday. US prosecutors have been investigating since 2016 whether Huawei violated US export and sanctions laws by shipping US-origin products to Iran.
But the specific targeting of Meng – rather than the company in general – has raised speculation by some trade analysts that the case could cast a shadow over attempts by Beijing and Washington to end their trade battles.
On Thursday, China sent twin messages: demanding Meng’s release but also expressing hope that the incident would not derail possible fresh momentum on trade talks started by President Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jingping last week.
Yet an editorial in the pro-government Global Times newspaper, which often reflects the foreign policy views of the Communist Party, decried the United States for “resorting to despicable hooliganism” in seeking Meng’s detention.
In many ways, Meng’s family story exemplifies the Chinese dream.
Her father was born into a poor family in the remote, rural province of Guizhou in 1944 and was initially denied entry to the Communist Party because of his family’s poor political standing.
He was finally admitted while he was doing his miliary service in 1978, two years after the end of the Cultural Revolution. He started Huawei in 1987 with the equivalent of $3,000 (roughly Rs. 2.12 lakhs).
“I always had this faith that I should work hard, devote myself to good causes, and be even ready to sacrifice my life for the interest of the people,” Ren said during a visit to New Zealand in 2013.
The company rapidly became a technological giant, and Ren is now estimated to be worth $3.4 billion, according to the Forbes Rich List.
He is not only enormously wealthy, he also now has excellent political connections. When Xi went to Britain for a state visit in 2015, Ren gave him a tour of Huawei’s London office.
Now 74, the founder had been widely seen as methodically planning to one day hand control to his eldest daughter, who also uses the English name Sabrina Meng.
Ren has denied that a transition strategy is in place. But it is clear that Meng, in her mid-40s, has been moved, step by step, into a rarefied place in the company and among China’s corporate elite.
Meng studied at Huazhong University of Science and Technology and, after graduating in 1992, started working at China Construction Bank. A year later, she joined her father’s company, working for a time as a telephone operator.
“I served as a secretary, and helped on sales and exhibitions etcetera, when the company was small. My early jobs in Huawei were very trivial,” she said in an interview with the 21st Century Business Herald in 2013.
She returned to her university in 1997 to study for a master’s degree in accounting, then returned to Huawei’s finance department. This “was the real start of my career,” she told the paper.
As Huawei took off, so did Meng’s career.
She was the brains behind setting up five global service centers on the world and a global payment center in Shenzhen, credited with boosting Huawei’s accounting efficiency, according to her official company biography.
Then in 2007, she led a partnership between Huawei and IBM that helped the Chinese company develop its data systems. More recently, she has been focused on Huawei’s finances and long-term development plans as the company’s chief financial officer.
Earlier this year, she was named deputy chairwoman of the company’s board.
Chinese Internet commentators rallied behind Meng on Thursday.
One person on the Weibo social media platform, using the name “Seavees,” quoted a line from the patriotic Chinese blockbuster movie “Wolf Warrior 2”: “Chinese citizens: When you are in danger overseas, don’t give up. Remember, there is a strong motherland behind you.”
© The Washington Post 2018