A tale of two sisters

The very different lives led by the daughters of Huawei’s founder


With her debutante buddies: Yao Anna stands hand-on-hip, second from the right in a gold gown

Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou hasn’t set foot in China since 2018. Instead the daughter of Huawei boss Ren Zhengfei remains holed up in Vancouver, under house arrest as she fights against an extradition request from the US.

Back in China, Meng’s half-sister Annabel Yao (the two adopted their respective mother’s surname), is stepping out in the world. Yao announced with great fanfare on her weibo account last week that she has signed with management company Beijing TH Entertainment to become one of its singing stars. The announcement was timed to coincide with the Huawei heiress’s 23rd birthday.

TH Entertainment, which represents celebrities like Chen Feiyu (the son of esteemed filmmaker Chen Kaige) and the singer Tan Weiwei, stirred the PR pot with the release of a 17-minute documentary, called ‘Extraordinary Princess’, that follows Yao’s road to stardom. The following day Great Wall Motors announced that it had hired Yao as its latest spokesperson for its SUV brand WEY. And on Monday, she dropped her first single BackFire (a risky title, you would think). Lyrics include: “The story is broken/ and rules are rewritten/not following the rules/ that is my style.”

Ren’s younger daughter enjoys the limelight much more than her hard-charging father, who dodged media appearances for years at Huawei. The Harvard-educated Yao had previously made a high-profile appearance at the exclusive Le Bal Debutante ball in Paris. At 16 she performed in the lead role in Swan Lake at the Shanghai Grand Theatre too.

Her announcement still caught the country by surprise. Overnight, she became the most talked-about topic on weibo (her half-sister grabbed second spot after revealing on the same day that she had recently been sent a series of death threats in Canada, including bullets in the mail).

The contrast in situations wasn’t lost on netizens, with many saying that Yao’s glitzy launch was tone-deaf in the circumstances.

“So while Yao Anna [her Chinese name] plays the princess, Meng Wanzhou is suffering in a foreign land,” one netizen lambasted.

“The older daughter puts her life in danger for the family while the younger one goes into show business for fame,” another sniffed.

Yao didn’t help matters by comparing herself to her half-sister in the 17-minute video. “I often read comments online and saw a lot of criticism. I would become very upset because I didn’t know why everyone was so harsh on me,” she complains. “Why does everyone like my sister and not me?”

Plenty of people were happy to explain it to her. “Meng Wanzhou endured what Yao Anna has never had to endure. She was with her father when he established the business empire and now she is paying the price by being left behind in a foreign country. Of course she wins the love and respect of everyone in China,” one commentator wrote.

“Meng Wanzhou has won the respect of the country but Yao Anna has earned its wrath, even though the two share the same father: Ren Zhengfei,” another pointed out.

When Meng was born, her father was still in the military and yet to found the business that would become such a behemoth in China’s telecoms and tech sector. She has described the first few years of her life as difficult, with the walls of the family home falling apart and the roof leaking every time it rained. It wasn’t until Ren started Huawei in 1987 – when Meng was already 15 – that life became more comfortable.

It has been widely reported that Meng and her father don’t have the warmest of relationships. “The reason we are not close is that when she was little, I joined the military. For 11 months out of a year, I couldn’t be with my kids,” he explained of the relationship two years ago.

Ren has a reputation at Huawei as a demanding man, with few soft edges. Some of that was on display in his response to news of Meng’s arrest in Canada. “Cuts and bruises toughen her up, and ever since ancient times, heroes were born of hardship,” he told CNBC. “I think this challenge will be good for my daughter.”

The much-younger Yao was born when Ren was 54 and Huawei’s star was already in the ascendancy. In comparison to Meng her upbringing has been a gilded one. She was educated at a private school and took ballet lessons from a young age.

But Yao’s career goals have come in for criticism, with questions raised about her motivation for going into show business. “As the youngest daughter of Ren Zhengfei, one of China’s most famous entrepreneurs, Yao’s choice is unexpected,” claimed Tencent Entertainment. “Is the dinner party scene just not appealing enough to her? Being a senior company executive is too difficult? It begs the question of why a princess who could live in a jade tower and not get her hands dirty would want to walk on Earth as an artist. It’s really very puzzling.”

Her father responded more pragmatically to the media coverage, albeit with a hint that he disapproves: “We respect her decision. Otherwise if she grows up and finds that other options don’t work out, she will complain that we didn’t let her pursue this path.”

Still, Yao’s road to stardom looks like being a difficult one, with netizens lining up to slam her debut song. “For us migrant workers not only do we have to slave away for the capitalists all day, at night we even have to watch their ugly daughters sing and dance” was one of the nastier responses online.

Yao is hardly the first fuerdai (the children of newly wealthy families) to pursue a career in the entertainment world.

An earlier example is Josie Ho, a daughter of the late Stanley Ho and his second wife Lucina Lam. She became a singer and actress in Hong Kong. In an interview, she explained what drove her to forge her own path, away from the gilded empire of her father’s casino empire in Macau. “The high-society circle is very small: every day you think about what to wear to the ball that night, what make-up to choose, what luxury brands to buy,” she recalled. “I don’t want to live that way. I think the so-called ‘high society’ life is very boring… I hope one day people will pay attention to me, respect me and appreciate me for my talent and not just because I’m this person’s daughter.”

“For a lot of the fuerdai that have everything, the only thing missing in their lives is the ability to prove themselves,” recognised another blogger.

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