As should happen in Canada:

The British government’s decision this week to ban Chinese technology giant Huawei from its national telecommunications infrastructure has prompted renewed scrutiny over Huawei’s links with universities in the United Kingdom and renewed calls for transparency in university dealings with the Chinese company.

The UK government announced on 14 July that the purchase of new Huawei equipment for high speed 5G networks will be banned at the end of 2020, and all Huawei equipment will be removed from UK 5G networks by 2027 following a review by the government’s National Cyber Security Centre. The United States and Australia have also banned Huawei from public contracts.

The United States has been lobbying its allies to exclude Huawei equipment on security grounds, arguing that the Chinese government can use Huawei as leverage to disrupt vital communications networks in foreign countries. Huawei has consistently denied it assists the Chinese government efforts to spy on mobile communications.

The decision was preceded by considerable debate on China’s influence, including on universities.

US lobbying extended to attempts to block local planning permission for a new £1 billion (US$1.3 billion) Huawei research hub on the outskirts of Cambridge, approved last month. Keith Krach, US under-secretary of state for economic growth, energy and the environment, said in advance of permission being granted that Huawei was “after the people and technology. They want to co-opt the researchers and talent from one of the most prestigious universities.”

Permission was granted on 24 June at a local district committee hearing, which, unusually for this type of local issue, was attended by ambassadors from a number of European countries who wanted to observe the proceedings.

Huawei announced on 26 June that the hub would specialise in fibre optics communications technology. Huawei Vice President Victor Zhang said in a statement that it was not linked to recent US sanctions on Huawei. “Huawei began developing plans for this site more than three years ago, in 2017, so well before the subject of Huawei and 5G was raised in the UK.”

College group demands transparency

With considerable Huawei investment in Cambridge, a major technology hub, student groups in Cambridge have stepped up demands for more transparency in university dealings with Huawei, and China in general, particularly because of ethical concerns over the national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing and human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Earlier this month the student union at Jesus College, Cambridge University raised “grave concerns” about the college’s ties to Beijing in a letter to the college head or ‘Master’, Sonita Alleyne.

The student union had called for a college commitment to accept no further funding or donations from Huawei and demanded an investigation into the college’s China Centre. The college accepted £155,000 in September 2019 from Huawei for a ‘two-year research cooperation’ under the centre, which resulted in a white paper on global telecommunications reform. Students said the white paper portrayed Huawei in a favourable light.

The paper attracted attention beyond the university, including from MPs on the UK’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee, which said the report from a prestigious university amounted to “reputation laundering” by Huawei.

Matthew Henderson, of the Henry Jackson Society, a foreign policy think tank in London which focuses on open democracy, commented at the time: “It is deeply disturbing that Huawei has been able to buy itself a publication endorsed by Cambridge University.”

The China Centre’s website said its team “organises seminars and workshops, hosting speakers with a wide array of views”.

According to participants, the Huawei-funded report was based on a conference held at the centre and included representatives of Facebook Europe, Google, Vodaphone, Alibaba and international bodies such as the International Telecommunication Union, the OECD, the UN trade and development agency UNCTAD, as well as prominent figures such as former Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd.

“We think the China Centre occupies an important role in [Jesus] College, and we are keen to work constructively with College to reform the Centre so that it better represents the values of financial transparency, academic freedom and political independence,” the student union letter said and called on Alleyne to commit to the centre hosting events on Chinese human rights abuses as well as the situation in Hong Kong.

College response

Alleyne said in an email to the college community, including alumni, that the college was beginning a review of some of its ‘historic collaborations’. “This includes our connections with China, some of which date back many years,” she said in the email dated 9 July and seen by University World News.

It includes the Jesus College China Centre as well as a separate UK-China Global Issues Dialogue Centre run by the college, which also receives Huawei funding.

Alleyne said the current two-year agreement between the Dialogue Centre and Huawei included a clause “enshrining academic freedom and free speech written into the research collaboration agreement. The Dialogue Centre owns all research results; Huawei cannot veto research findings, the publication of views or conclusions.

“We are cognisant of the rapidly changing situation in China, particularly in relation to human rights. At this crucial time, it is important that we as an academic institution remain committed to dialogue and intellectual discourse between China and the West.”

Jesus College has also revealed under a request under the UK’s Freedom of Information Act submitted by The Times newspaper that it had received £200,000 in September 2018 from China’s State Council – equivalent to the cabinet and headed by Premier Li Keqiang – for the separate UK-China Global Issues Dialogue Centre set up by the college at that time in collaboration with Tsinghua University in Beijing, which has also been a focus of the student union’s concerns.

The United States has also particularly focused its lobbying on technology transfer to China through Huawei tie-ups with universities.

Huawei Board Director William Xu said in a December blogpost: “We do get useful intellectual property out of some partnerships, but when this happens, the terms are clearly established. For instance, in all the collaborations between Huawei and European research institutes since 2018, only a small portion of resulting IP rights (IPRs) were exclusively granted to Huawei, while most resulting IPRs were exclusively granted to our partners or granted to both parties.”

He noted that even before Huawei arrived on the scene, “universities had a long experience of collaborating with industry. Huawei is one of countless companies engaged in partnerships with universities worldwide. We follow well-established and extremely common practices whenever we initiate collaborations with universities. Even the institutions – primarily US ones – that suspended their relationship with our company are well aware of this; their decision to stop working with us was not the result of Huawei doing anything improper.”

He added: “Although our ultimate focus remains commercial, our interest in basic sciences in many areas now converges with universities’ efforts to expand the boundaries of human knowledge. In the coming years, it is only natural that collaboration between Huawei and universities will become increasingly routine.”

Huawei and other universities

Last year the UK’s University of Oxford said it would no longer accept funding from Huawei, but 17 British universities currently receive funding from the Chinese company. These include Surrey University’s 5G Innovation Centre, Imperial College London and the universities of Edinburgh, Southampton, Cardiff, Manchester and Bristol, with several of them declining to reveal the amount of funding.

The demand for greater transparency and opposition to some types of deals have highlighted some funding deals. In February the London School of Economics (LSE) approved a three-year project on the leadership in the development of 5G technology funded by Huawei.

The NGO openDemocracy said it had obtained access to internal documents that showed the university would receive £105,000 from Huawei for the research, although it is unclear whether it is now going ahead after some academics at the institution raised questions, with some of them concerned the institution had approached Huawei rather than the other way around.

The internal documents state that the LSE has been “chasing” philanthropic funding from China, which is already a source of funding for research. “China and East Asia, in general, will be an important philanthropic market for LSE,” it said.

In May Imperial College London announced a new five-year collaboration with Huawei, with the Chinese company funding a new £5 million technology hub at the university. Huawei will provide the 5G indoor wireless network and AI Cloud platform at one of Imperial’s new campuses.

Ian Walmsley, provost of Imperial College London, said: “Huawei’s expertise in wireless technology will help our researchers, students and partner enterprises to lead the next generation of digital innovations.”

“Imperial, like other UK universities, has received support from Huawei for high-quality and open research for several years, and we are continuing this work,” a spokesman at Imperial College London said. “Such funding continues to be subject to the college’s robust relationship review policies.”

But former Conservative party leader Iain Duncan Smith, a high-profile opponent of Huawei’s involvement in UK infrastructure, called the Imperial-Huawei deal “deeply worrying and dangerous”.

“This is a perfect example of how the Chinese strategy is to use their money to insert their influence in the world’s intellectual thought process,” he said.

In November last year the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Select Committee said in a report that countries including China were seeking to influence universities. Funding and investment agreements could, for example, include “explicit or implicit limits” on what subjects could be discussed, while institutions had also been pressured not to invite certain speakers, or not to disseminate certain papers, the report A Cautious Embrace: Defending democracy in an age of autocracies found.

“We heard alarming evidence about the extent of Chinese influence on the campuses of UK universities,” the committee said.

Need to manage risk

Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London, said in a report released on 9 July by the UK-based think tank Higher Education Policy Institute: “All universities must think through, and rapidly adopt, a risk management strategy for any dealings with China. This should cover all areas of intellectual enquiry. It should spell out clearly and without naivety the risks, and opportunities, of doing work with China and on China. It should also offer some ideas on how to manage issues such as demands from Chinese partners.

“They need to be ready to say no to demands or issues from China that they feel violate their own values, but ensure they do this in a neutral and respectful way,” he said in the report on UK Universities and China.

In the same report, Rana Mitter, director of the University of Oxford China Centre, noted pressures from China for some universities to accept restrictions when they sign agreements.

“Voices from China’s establishment imply that they can easily take their students elsewhere,” he said.

However, he also noted: “The number of first-tier academic environments in the world is not that large. Chinese access to the higher education sector in the UK is welcome, but it is not a right, nor simply a consumer good to be accepted or rejected at will.”