There are no simple solutions in dealing with Huawei

The Chinese tech giant’s challenge for universities will be far from an isolated case and universities are not prepared for the nuanced reaction required, says John Ross 

April 17, 2019
Huawei R&D base, Dongguan, China
Part of Huawei's mock-European R&D base in Dongguan, near Guangzhou

Last year’s Times Higher Education survey of university presidents revealed clear expectations for global higher education over the next decade. Private sector research grants are the income stream most tipped to rise, while public funding is considered most likely to decline. Sixty per cent of university leaders expect research to become more applied, as support wanes for the blue-sky variety.

For university leaders confronting this scenario, a private sector benefactor offering annual $300 million (£230 million) handouts to independent research institutions – quarantining almost a third of the money for basic research – must look like a dream come true.

Step forward Huawei, the world’s fifth biggest business Research and Development spender. Last year it ploughed 15 per cent of its earnings back into research, maintaining an 80,000-strong in-house R&D army and funding external institutions.

I recently visited the company’s R&D base in Dongguan, China. In a nod to founder Ren Zhengfei’s passion for architecture, cultivated during his student days, the new centre is arranged in 12 mock “towns” styled on European icons like Paris, Heidelberg, Český Krumlov and Granada.

Cafes and restaurants abound in Huawei’s gated work precincts along with convenience stores, gyms, lawns and libraries.

Initiative is rewarded. Components bear the monikers of their inventors, like asteroids named for their discoverers. Reward schemes extend to the production line, where workers who conceive process improvements attract promotions. The staff are in some of China’s most prized jobs.

Huawei’s research questions are designed to benefit its customers. Materials scientists are developing lighter shells for mobile phone base stations so that operators can install them without cranes, slashing setup and maintenance costs. Others work on corrosion-proof alloys for equipment exposed to rain or drains.

In an experiment proudly displayed at the front of a lab, a pristine-looking component sits in a fish tank. It has been there for four years, as attested by a neighbouring tank containing its decomposing twin. The researchers laugh off my suggestions that such innovations could have applications elsewhere. Their focus is communications.

It is hard to see how universities could go wrong getting involved in such projects. Then again some research questions have less benign overtones, like cybersecurity and artificial intelligence.

Huawei’s signature 5G technology promises data transmission an order of magnitude more powerful than the current 4G, with video and audio delays reduced to imperceptible levels and the ability to connect many devices simultaneously.

These capabilities are perfectly primed for the internet of things, that tech nirvana where everything is connected and everyday decisions at the household and city level – from restocking your fridge to controlling people’s movements – are handled on autopilot. 

All this in the hands of a flagship company of Xi Jinping’s increasingly authoritarian China.

To some, the tensions around Huawei and China are the predictable symptoms of a geopolitical changing of the guard, as one dominant military industrial complex gives way to another. Telecommunications companies often take centre stage in geopolitical ructions because of the power they hold to both surveil a population and completely cut it off from the rest of the world. 

But after spending some time at Huawei HQ and speaking with staff for a recent THE news analysis, I’ve seen that the situation is far more complex.

For example, Adam Ni, a China researcher at Sydney’s Macquarie University, says there are no “simple blanket solutions” when it comes to dealing with China, but complete avoidance of companies like Huawei is the wrong approach. Universities should, however, be wary of partnering with companies linked to the Chinese military or involved in enabling human rights abuses in China’s western Xinjiang province, he advises.

Then ethicist Clive Hamilton says that these types of narratives play out differently in a country where there are “no countervailing forces” against corporate collusion with the state.

Hamilton cites Google’s resistance of demands to work more closely with US intelligence at the very time that it is actively trying to build its relationships with the authoritarian state in China. “It’s impossible to imagine the reverse – a Chinese company refusing to cooperate with the Chinese government, yet looking to work with the American government,” he told me. 

Hamilton says he can imagine circumstances in which universities might “very carefully” collaborate in research with Huawei. “But Huawei gets a lot more out of those collaborations in the West than Western universities do,” he warns.

Similarly, consultant and former academic Nick Forster advocates caution in dealing with organisations from China asking, “Is this the kind of money we want coming into the university sector?” Forster says that at the very least vice-chancellors must conduct “really rigorous due diligence” over who controls the money and whether Western academics are restricted in what they can say and do.

But are universities equipped with the in-house capabilities to conduct the required due diligence? 

If university leaders expect to become more dependent on private research funding it would be wise to have these processes in place, to safeguard transparency and ethics in every collaboration. 

Ending ties with an entire company, especially one as willing as Huawei to invest serious cash into innovative research, could be a dismissal that universities soon cannot afford to make.  

John Ross is the Asia-Pacific editor for Times Higher Education. He’s based in Sydney. 

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