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Billionaire Huawei founder defiant in face of existential threat

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Huawei Technologies Co. founder Ren Zhengfei struck a defiant tone in the face of US sanctions that threaten his company’s very survival.

In an interview with Bloomberg Television, the billionaire founder of China’s largest technology company conceded that Trump administration export curbs will cut into a two-year lead Huawei had painstakingly built over rivals like Ericsson AB and Nokia Oyj. But the company will either ramp up its own chip supply or find alternatives to keep its edge in smartphones and 5G.

The US on May 17 blacklisted Huawei — which it accuses of aiding Beijing in espionage — and cut it off from the US software and components it needs to make its products. The ban hamstrings the world’s largest provider of networking gear and No. 2 smartphone vendor, just as it was preparing to vault to the forefront of global technology. It’s rocking chipmakers from America to Europe as the global supply chain comes under threat. The ban could also disrupt the rollout of 5G wireless globally, undermining a standard that’s touted as the foundation of everything from autonomous cars to robot surgery.

Ren maintained Huawei had the capability to devise its own solutions — given time. It’s been designing its own chips for years, which it now uses in many of its own smartphones. It’s even developing its own operating software to run phones and servers. The CEO however deflected questions about how quickly Huawei can ramp up those internal replacement endeavors. Failure could dent the fast-growing consumer business and even kill emergent efforts such as cloud servers.

“That depends on how fast our repairmen are able to fix the plane,” said Ren, who appeared at ease in a white jacket over a pink shirt, making light of questions about his company’s plight. “No matter what materials they use, be it metal, cloth or paper, the aim is to keep the plane in the sky.”

Ren has gone from recluse to media maven in the span of months as he fights to save the $100 billion company he founded. The 74-year-old billionaire emerged from virtual seclusion after the arrest of eldest daughter and Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou as part of a broader probe of Huawei. He’s since become a central figure in a US-Chinese conflict that’s potentially the most important episode to shape world affairs since the collapse of the Soviet Union. As Ren said in January, when the world’s biggest economies battle for dominion, nothing in their way will survive. His company is a “sesame seed” between twin great powers, he said.

“This may bring one of China’s national champions to its knees,’’ said Chris Lane, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. “If China shut down all the Apple plants, the US would get very upset. This is a similar kind of move.”

Ren has had much to deal with of late. His company finds itself increasingly under fire, besieged by a US effort to get key allies to ban its equipment. The US assault helped crystallize fears about Huawei’s growing clout in areas from wireless infrastructure and semiconductors to consumer gadgets.

Then came the blacklist. Huawei appears to have anticipated this possibility since at least mid-2018, when similar sanctions threatened to sink rival ZTE Corp. Huawei’s said to have stockpiled enough chips and other vital components to keep its business running at least three months.

“We have made some really good chips,” said Ren, a legendary figure in his home country thanks to the way he built Huawei from scratch into a global powerhouse. “Being able to grow in the toughest battle environment, that just reflects how great we are.”

Last week, Trump said Huawei could become part of a US-Chinese trade deal, stirring speculation it was a bargaining chip in sensitive negotiations. But Ren said he wasn’t a politician. “It’s a big joke,” he scoffed. “How are we related to China-US trade?”

If Trump calls, “I will ignore him, then to whom can he negotiate with? If he calls me, I may not answer. But he doesn’t have my number.”

In fact, Ren pulled no punches in going after a man he labeled “a great president” just months prior. “I see his tweets and think it’s laughable because they’re self-contradictory,” he quipped. “How did he become a master of the art of the deal?”

Beijing itself isn’t without options. Some speculate China might retaliate against the ban of Huawei — which may widen to include some of its most promising AI firms — by in turn barring America’s largest corporations from its own markets. Apple Inc. could relinquish nearly a third of its profit if China banned its products, Goldman Sachs analysts estimate.

Ren said he would object to any such move against his American rival.

“That will not happen, first of all. And second of all, if that happens, I’ll be the first to protest,” Ren said in the interview. “Apple is my teacher, it’s in the lead. As a student, why go against my teacher? Never.”

At the heart of Trump’s campaign is suspicion that Huawei aids Beijing in espionage while spearheading China’s ambitions to become a technology superpower. It’s been accused for years of stealing intellectual property in lawsuits filed by American companies from Cisco Systems Inc. and Motorola Inc. to T-Mobile US Inc. Critics say such theft helped Huawei vault into the upper echelons of technology — but Ren laughed off that premise.

“I stole the American technologies from tomorrow. The US doesn’t even have those technologies,” he said. “We are ahead of the US If we were behind, there would be no need for Trump to strenuously attack us.”

Ren’s easy demeanor belies the way he’s consistently shunned attention. The army engineer-turned-entrepreneur has this year turned in a command performance in the public spotlight, particularly for someone who’s rarely spoken to foreign media since he created Huawei. The re-emergence of the reclusive CEO — who before January last spoke with foreign media in 2015 — underscores the depth of the attacks on Huawei, the largest symbol of China’s growing technological might. Ren again waved off speculation his company is in any way beholden to the Communist Party, though he’s declared his loyalty ultimately lies with the country’s ruling body.

US lawmakers aren’t convinced. That’s why the US Commerce Department cut off the flow of American technology — from chips to software and everything in-between.

An iconic figure in Chinese business circles, the billionaire remains a uniquely placed voice in a conflict that will help define the global landscape. Ren, who says he survived the chaos of the Cultural Revolution thanks in part to his much sought-after expertise in high-precision tools, remains a big believer that Huawei’s technology will win the day.

His company today generates more sales than internet giants Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Tencent Holdings Ltd. combined. In 2018, Huawei overtook Apple in smartphone sales, a triumph that burnished his tech credentials. His quotes adorn the walls of the food court at Huawei’s sprawling campus on the outskirts of the southern metropolis of Shenzhen, and employees still speak of him in reverent tones. The company’s 2018 report shows he has a 1.14% stake, giving him a net worth of $2 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Ren, who survived Mao Zedong’s great famine to found Huawei in 1987 with 21,000 yuan, said Huawei will do whatever it takes to survive. It will ignore the noise while doing its business the best it can. Meanwhile, the pressure is bound to take a toll. At one point during the interview, Ren’s unflappable demeanor cracked — if only for a minute.

“The US has never bought products from us,” he said, bristling. “Even if the US wants to buy our products in the future, I may not sell to them. There’s no need for a negotiation.”

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Foreign investors pull out over $16 bn from India amid Coronavirus pandemic: Report

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Increasing concerns of a major economic recession in Asia amidst the Coronavirus pandemic, foreign investors have pulled out an estimated $26 billion from developing Asian economies and over $16 billion out of India, an independent Congressional Research Center said in its latest report on global economic effects of COVID-19.

In Europe, over 30 million people in Germany, France, the UK, Spain, and Italy have applied for state support, while first quarter 2020 data indicates that the eurozone economy contracted by 3.8 per cent, the largest quarterly decline since the series started in 1995, it said.

In the US, preliminary data indicated that the GDP fell by 4.8 per cent in the first quarter of 2020, the largest quarterly decline since the fourth quarter of 2008 during the global financial crisis, the CRS said.

According to CRS, the pandemic crisis is challenging governments to implement monetary and fiscal policies that support credit markets and sustain economic activity, while they are implementing policies to develop vaccines and safeguard their citizens.

In doing so, however, differences in policy approaches are straining relations between countries that promote nationalism and those that argue for a coordinated international response.

Differences in policies are also straining relations between developed and developing economies and between northern and southern members of the eurozone, challenging alliances, and raising questions about the future of global leadership, the report said.

Amid growing concern across the world that Chinese companies are buying cheap, distressed assets hit by the Coronavirus pandemic, India, last month, reviewed the extant Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) policy for curbing opportunistic takeovers/acquisitions of Indian companies.

With the amendment, an entity of a country, which shares a land border with India or where the beneficial owner of investment into India is situated in or is a citizen of any such country, can invest only under the Government route.

Until before the new arrangement was made in the policy, the curb on FDI was only on Pakistan and Bangladesh as a citizen of Bangladesh or an entity incorporated in Bangladesh can invest only under the Government route. Further, a citizen of Pakistan or an entity incorporated in Pakistan can invest, only under the Government route, in sectors/activities other than defence, space, atomic energy and sectors/activities prohibited for foreign investment.

This change has brought China in the ambit of ‘government permission’ before investing in any sector in the country.

China had slammed the move saying New Delhi is “against liberalisation”.

China claimed that India’s new rules for FDI “violate WTO principles of non-discrimination and are against free and fair trade”. It further called for a “revision of discriminatory practices”.

However, the Indian government has said that it is “not denial” of permission but only an approval process, which is in no way a violation.

Meanwhile, according to the Congressional report, while almost all major economies are shrinking as a result of Coronavirus, only three countries China, India, and Indonesia are projected to experience small, but positive rates of economic growth in 2020.

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Facebook buys 9.99 per cent stake in Reliance Jio for $5.7 billion, largest FDI in Indian tech sector

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The social media giant Facebook on Wednesday, announced an investment of USD 5.7 billion (Rs 43,574 crore) to buy a 10 per cent stake in the Reliance Industries’ telecom arm Jio, as the company looks to expand presence in India, the largest market in terms of subscriber base and  the second largest internet market after China. Company said that the investment “underscores our commitment to India, and our excitement for the dramatic transformation that Jio has spurred in the country”.

This is largest Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the Indian technology sector and also the largest investment by a tech company to buy minority stake globally. Today’s early trading showed a surge in the price of shares of RIL  by 8 per cent after Facebook announced its investment plans.

Facebook already has 400-plus million highly popular Whatsapp chat users in India and the social media firm looks to leverage it to offer digital payment services. Having a local partner could help it in navigating various regulatory issues, including those related to privacy and local storage.

Facebook in an official statement said, “Today we are announcing a USD 5.7 billion, or Rs 43,574 crore, investment in Jio Platforms Ltd, part of Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL), making Facebook its largest minority shareholder.”

“This investment by Facebook values Jio Platforms at Rs 4.62 lakh crore ($65.95 billion) pre-money enterprise value, agreed at a conversion rate of Rs 70 to a US Dollar. Facebook’s investment will translate into a 9.99% equity stake in Jio Platforms on a fully diluted basis,” RIL said.

“Facebook’s investment will translate into a 9.99 per cent equity stake in Jio Platforms on a fully diluted basis,” it added.

Facebook said the investment “underscores our commitment to India, and our excitement for the dramatic transformation that Jio has spurred in the country”.

“In less than four years, Jio has brought more than 388 million people online, fueling the creation of innovative new enterprises and connecting people in new ways. We are committed to connecting more people in India together with Jio,” it added.

A wholly-owned subsidiary of Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL), Jio Platforms  houses digital services of the group led by billionaire Mukesh Ambani. Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd, with 388 million subscribers, is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Jio Platforms.

The Facebook deal is part of value unlocking by RIL to cut debt. RIL has been seeking strategic partnerships across its businesses while targeting to deleverage its balance sheet.

The group has also been in talks with Saudi Aramco for sale of a 20 per cent stake in its oil-to-chemical business for an asking of USD 15 billion. RIL has already tied up with BP Plc for fuel business as it targets to have a debt-free status by next year.

Jio had also been reportedly talking separately to Google but the fate of those discussions is not known.

Also, having a good telecom partner could help Facebook improve its reach to masses.

RIL could leverage on Facebook’s technology expertise and talent pool as well as help in its ambitions to make Jio a digital company. This apart, the deal would aid the company achieving zero debt status by March 2021.

Since launching Jio in 2016, RIL has emerged as the only Indian company capable of competing with US tech groups in the fast-growing Indian market, expanding from mobile telecom into everything from home broadband to e-commerce.

Jio has emerged as the number one telecom operator in India, both in terms of traffic as well as revenue in a virtual two-player market since the third player, Vodafone-Idea is struggling under regulatory burden. Jio’s main competitor is Bharti Airtel.

Facebook in its official statement added,”In less than four years, Jio has brought more than 388 million people online, fueling the creation of innovative new enterprises and connecting people in new ways. We are committed to connecting more people in India together with Jio,”

Together with WhatsApp and Instagram, Facebook overall is estimated to have more users in India than any other single country.

The number of internet users in India is projected to rise to about 850 million in 2022, according to consultancy PwC, up from 450 million in 2017.

“The partnership between Facebook and Jio is unprecedented in many ways. This is the largest investment for a minority stake by a technology company anywhere in the world and the largest FDI in the technology sector in India,” RIL said.

“The investment values Jio Platforms amongst the top 5 listed companies in India by market capitalisation, within just three-and-a-half years of launch of commercial services, validating RIL’s capability in incubating and building disruptive next-generation businesses, while delivering market defining shareholder value,” the statement said.

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World Bank approves $1 billion emergency aid for India to combat Coronavirus outbreak

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Amid Coronavirus pandemic hitting the global economy, the World Bank on Thursday, approved $1 billion emergency financial aid for India to combat the coronavirus outbreak, which has taken 2,069 people in its grip in the country and has claimed 53 lives so far.

“In India, $1 billion emergency financing will support better screening, contact tracing, and laboratory diagnostics; procure personal protective equipment; and set up new isolation wards,” the World Bank said.

It has approved total aid of $ 1.9 billion for 25 poor countries with the largest amount of assistance being given to India, followed by $ 200 million for Pakistan, $ 129 million for Sri Lanka, $100 million for Afghanistan and $ 83 million for Ethiopia.

After this first round of aid for 25 countries, now another round of relief packages to 40 other countries will be given.

The emergency resources would include money to purchase critical medical supplies such as masks and ventilators and the World Bank will lend its procurement expertise to help obtain these supplies on global markets.

World Bank President David Malpass and Managing Director of IMF Kristalina Georgieva are asking the G-20 countries to support instituting a 14-month pause in requiring the poorest countries to make debt repayments.

The World Bank said that the next step is to grant up to $160 billion assistance over the next 15 months to support measures against the global fight to arrest COVID-19 pandemic, focussing on immediate relief and bolster economic recovery.

According to Malpass, the proposal for financial aid was discussed at last week’s conference call with US President Donald Trump and other G-20 leaders and further approval would be taken when the World Bank’s policy panel, the Development Committee, holds a virtual meeting on April 17.

The Coronavirus pandemic has infected over one million people worldwide on Friday as the number rose to 1,016,128 and claimed 53,146 lives. Meanwhile, 328 coronavirus cases have been reported in the last 24 hours in India.

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