As the Trump administration wages a fierce diplomatic and legal campaign against Chinese telecommunications giants Huawei and ZTE, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is stepping out of the line of fire.
MIT is breaking off its research partnerships with Huawei and ZTE, citing US government allegations that the two companies violated US law to sidestep trade sanctions against Iran, school officials said in a message to the university community Wednesday.
“At this time . . . MIT is not accepting new engagements or renewing existing ones with Huawei and ZTE or their respective subsidiaries due to federal investigations regarding violations of sanction restrictions. The Institute will revisit collaborations with these entities as circumstances dictate,” Maria Zuber, vice president for research at MIT, and Associate Provost Richard Lester wrote in the letter to colleagues.
The university is also instituting a new review process for international collaborations, promising to subject any deals involving China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia to special scrutiny prior to approval. The announcement comes two months after MIT said it would continue its relationship with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, despite that country’s bloody military campaign in Yemen and its suspected involvement in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Jonathan King, a biology professor at MIT and critic of its relationship with Saudi Arabia, offered muted praise.
“I’m happy that they are raising the standards and not just taking money from anybody,” said King. “But on the other hand, the most egregious relationship is with Saudi Arabia.”
The school has multiple initiatives with Saudi entities. It received at least $25 million from the state oil company Saudi Aramco to fund the MIT Energy Initiative, which is focused on developing clean and renewable energy. In its most recent fiscal year, MIT received $7.2 million in sponsored research support and another $1 million for connecting Saudi businesses with MIT experts and providing coursework for business executives in the kingdom.
King pointed out that the new “senior risk panel” of MIT executives that will vet deals with problematic countries will feature the same people who approved continued ties to Saudi Arabia. He said the risk panel should be independent and have the power to block any research partnerships that might compromise MIT’s ethical standards.
Accepting research funding from the Saudis, King said, was “beyond the pale — absolutely a contradiction to MIT’s mission.”
The MIT announcement also comes as a GOP congressman from Indiana, Jim Banks, filed legislation to give the federal government more power to monitor university alliances with foreign businesses and governments that have possible intelligence or national security implications. The federal government could bar students from China, Russia, Iran or North Korea from participating in such projects without special permission from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank, said universities are alarmed by Banks’s proposal. But MIT’s announcement, he noted, was “a very deft and a very necessary way of getting out ahead of any Washington attempt to regulate research.”
The Trump administration has waged a global campaign against Huawei, the world’s dominant maker of cellular telecommunications systems, saying it has stolen trade secrets and evaded economic sanctions on Iran. Huawei and its chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, have been indicted by the US Justice Department over the Iran sanctions. Meng was arrested in Canada and is fighting an extradition to the United States.
The United States says Huawei also poses a cybersecurity risk because of its close ties to the Chinese government, and it has warned other countries that Beijing could use Huawei equipment to spy on sensitive communications, or shut down networks during an international crisis. Nonetheless, allies including the United Kingdom, Germany, and India have said they plan to use Huawei gear for advanced 5G wireless networks.
The United States has similarly accused ZTE of being a security threat and of violating US sanctions against Iran and North Korea as well.
Other major universities had already begun to dial back or end their relationships with Huawei, including Princeton, Stanford, and the University of California Berkeley.
“We won’t accept money, we won’t sign agreements with them going forward,” said Joseph Konstan, associate dean for research at the University of Minnesota’s College of Computer Science and Engineering
While the US indictments against Huawei convinced schools to change their policies, Konstan said even before then universities were questioning whether Huawei might be stealing their research for its own commercial benefit, or for the benefit of the Chinese government.
Yet Konstan also fears the US backlash against Chinese tech firms may go too far, damaging valuable academic ties between the two countries.
“We don’t want to drive a wedge between China and the US, in places where this collaboration makes us all better,” he said.
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.