U.S. lawmakers are urging their government to launch a probe of Huawei Technologies’ research activities on American university campuses, citing an intelligence report showing that such academic partnerships are a primary method for China to scoop up foreign technology.
A bipartisan group organized by Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Jim Banks, also a Republican, is urging Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to investigate partnerships between Huawei, a Chinese corporate giant, and 50 American universities.
“We believe these partnerships may pose a significant threat to national security and this threat demands your attention and oversight,” the group said in a letter. “Huawei is not a normal private sector company the way we have grown accustomed to thinking of the commercial economy in the West.”
Article 7 of China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law says Chinese companies must “support, co-operate with and collaborate in national intelligence work and guard the secrecy of national intelligence work they are aware of.”
The request by 26 U.S. senators and members of the House of Representatives comes three weeks after the publication of a Globe and Mail investigation into Huawei’s involvement on Canadian university campuses. The Globe detailed how one of China’s national companies has established relationships with leading research-heavy universities to create a steady pipeline of intellectual property that the company is using to underpin its market position in next-generation 5G mobile technology. In at least 40 cases, the academics involved, whose work is largely underwritten by taxpayers, have assigned all intellectual-property rights to the company.
The members of Congress now asking Washington to probe Huawei include U.S. lawmakers who this week publicly warned Canada that the Shenzhen-based firm represents a threat to the Five Eyes intelligence network, which allows police, prosecutors and spies in Canada, the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand to exchange information to prevent espionage and terrorism.
In their letter, they cited a document from the National Intelligence Council, a centre for strategic thinking in the U.S. intelligence community, that they said identifies “research partnerships with U.S. universities … [as] a primary mode of China’s toolkit for foreign technology acquisition.”
Huawei, the world’s largest maker of telecommunications network equipment and the No. 3 smartphone supplier, has already been virtually shut out of the giant U.S. market because of national-security concerns. The chiefs of six U.S. intelligence agencies and three former heads of Canada’s spy services recently said Huawei is one of the world’s top cyberintelligence threats, adding that its 5G technology could be used to conduct remote spying, maliciously modify or steal information or even shut down systems.
Huawei in Canada declined to comment on the U.S. calls for an investigation, but suggested it wasn’t necessary in Canada.
”[We] believe Canadians understand the current complexities that exist in global politics,” said Scott Bradley, a Huawei vice-president. “As we have done for a decade, Huawei Canada works openly and transparently with the Canadian government, Canadian operators and other Canadian stakeholders, including Canadian universities. “
Scott Bardsley, a spokesman for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, would not comment on the Huawei issue but said Canadians can be assured that the government “works diligently to monitor for security threats.”
He said the National Science Engineering Research Council, which funds university research, requires private-sector partners to “have a credible plan for exploiting the research results within Canada and demonstrate that it has the necessary expertise and resources to implement the results.”
The senators and members of the House of Representatives also cited February, 2018, testimony from FBI director Christopher Wray, who said he was ”concerned about the risks of allowing any company or entity that is beholden to foreign governments, that don’t share our values, to gain positions of power inside our telecommunications networks.”
They told The Washington Post they want American universities that have partnered with Huawei to hand over the contracts and details, particularly at schools that receive federal funding or participate in research dealing with classified information. The suggestion is that the federal funding could be withheld if the schools do not co-operate, the Post reported.
“China is using Huawei to position themselves to steal American research,” Mr. Rubio told the Post. “They are using so-called ‘research partnerships’ with over 50 American universities to exploit the openness of our schools.”
Mr. Banks told the paper he is particularly concerned about research partnerships at universities because they operate under less oversight and transparency.
“It’s fairly obvious to me the Department of Education isn’t at all aware of the threat that Huawei poses, the infiltration that they have succeeded in accomplishing with a broad number of universities around the country,” he told the Post. “Huawei is a snake in the grass. Their influence on these college campuses is alarming.”
In a series of Globe interviews with officials at Canadian universities this year, however, none seemed concerned about assertions that Huawei is a national-security threat, nor that their research is helping a Chinese company gain a global economic advantage in 5G technology despite spinning off relatively marginal economic benefits here. Instead, they lauded Huawei as a valuable partner providing much-needed funding in return for intellectual property generated by their research.
But Michael Wessel, a commissioner on the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a watchdog that reports to Congress, called on Canada to sever its universities’ relationships with the firm.
“Huawei’s involvement with Canadian universities raises serious questions as well in light of the strong relationship between U.S. and Canadian technology and telecommunications firms, the integrated nature of our technology infrastructure and the cutting-edge research being done in Canada,” Mr. Wessel said.
With files from Reuters