Major research universities cutting ties with Huawei

HUAWEI: A staff member of Huawei uses her mobile phone at the Huawei Digital Transformation Showcase in Shenzhen, China's Guangdong province, on March 6. Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON – First Congress threatened to cut off federal funds to universities using components made by telecom giant Huawei. Next came a classified FBI briefing last fall for University of California research chiefs about foreign espionage threats.

Then in January the U.S. government charged the Chinese firm with bank fraud, violating U.S. sanctions against Iran and theft of trade secrets.

"This was the point in which the line was crossed for me," said Randy Katz, UC Berkeley's vice chancellor for research.

He promptly announced an immediate ban on new research with Huawei, suspending a partnership with one of the school's largest corporate donors that had provided about $9 million over the past eight years.

Berkeley is among a growing number of American universities, including such research powerhouses as Stanford, MIT and UC San Diego, that have begun to cut ties with Huawei. The moves come in response to warnings from U.S. law enforcement agencies that Huawei can't be trusted and could secretly do Beijing's bidding, whether by spying or sabotage.

Moreover, the Trump administration wants to restrain Huawei – the world's largest telecom equipment maker – from expanding its grip on development of critical 5G infrastructure, the next-generation wireless networking system that experts believe will transform connectivity for self-driving cars, factory automation and many other applications.

While Europe has generally been skeptical of White House calls to prevent Huawei from dominating new 5G networks, U.S. universities, many of which have long-standing relationships with Chinese entities, find themselves in a bind: China may be one of the largest outside sources of technology research funding, but it runs a distant second to Washington in underwriting such work.

UC San Diego, one of the nation's largest research universities, counts on the federal government for most of its more than $1 billion in annual R&D spending. The school last August issued a six-month moratorium on new research involvement with Huawei, and last month extended that indefinitely.

Not only do universities fear jeopardizing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants, they don't want to find themselves in the position down the road of having contributed to national security problems, however inadvertently.

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