Lyndon B. Johnson, the cunning, calculating 36th US president, liked two things more than anything else: politics and money. Occasionally — and not without suspicion — his passions melded. In 1963, a Wall Street Journal reporter described these crossovers, writing that “like two young oaks springing up side by side, [Johnson’s] careers in government and business grew mightily—their trunks rising parallel and branches intertwining.” The problematic mix never got Johnson into too much trouble, but it did call into question his integrity as a leader.
For the University of Toronto, a leader in education and innovation with numerous business links, it was only a matter of time before it stumbled into a similar situation. That time seems to have come: the university’s partnership with Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant at the centre of escalating tensions between China and Canada, is now of much greater significance — and controversy.
Three months ago, U of T renewed its five-year partnership with Huawei, with the company pledging further funds toward joint research initiatives. Since the original deal in 2016, Huawei has funded dozens of U of T projects, contributing roughly $3.5 million over the last two years.
In an interview with U of T News in October, U of T’s Vice-President Research and Innovation Vivek Goel said, “We’re pleased to extend this partnership. As a global institution, the University of Toronto enters into partnerships with a wide range of domestic and multinational companies in a bid to stay at the leading edge of research in Canada and around the world.”
In May, a Globe and Mail report revealed that, by contributing over $50 million to 13 research-heavy Canadian universities, Huawei has built “a steady pipeline of intellectual property” that the company is using to solidify its position in the 5G market. Over the last few years, “nearly 100 professors and graduate students worked on Huawei-funded projects,” and in many cases, “the academics, whose work is underwritten by Canadian taxpayers, assigned all intellectual property rights to Huawei.”
Even before the Canadian government’s detainment of Huawei’s Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou or China’s subsequent detainment of three Canadian nationals, concerns arose that this back-and-forth may not merely be in the spirit of cooperation.
Speaking to the CBC in July, Toronto technology analyst Daniel Bader asserted that “Huawei poses a security threat because it is required to listen to and provide information to the Chinese government. All private companies are (required to do so) in China. Because of a history of cyber terrorism and espionage, there is concern that Huawei may be working on behalf of the Communist Party.”
In an interview with The Varsity, Lynette Ong, an Associate Professor of Political Science at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, downplayed these suspicions. She wrote that although university research such as medical science or engineering is not as politically sensitive as military or finance-related research, it could still attract interest.
These notions are prominent south of the border as well. During the summer, American lawmakers asked Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to investigate Huawei’s investments in American universities, citing an intelligence report claiming that the company was funding research to scoop up foreign technology. Canada’s Five Eyes allies — Australia, New Zealand, the UK, and the US — have all put up barriers to halt Huawei’s 5G expansion.
In spite of these developments, U of T has been passive around its partnership with Huawei. Goel told The Varsity in October that the university’s partnership with Huawei is “as strong or stronger” than those with its other industry partners. In mid-December, he told the press that the university will “respect any direction it receives from the [Canadian] government.” But there’s reason to think that the university may have to be proactive in distancing itself from Huawei, and not simply wait for a call from Ottawa.
On December 12, the editor-in-chief of the Communist Party-run paper, The Global Times, posted a video in which he warned that “if Canada extradites Meng to the US, China’s revenge will be far worse than detaining a Canadian.”
Will the University of Toronto drift into the crosshairs? In an interview with The Varsity, Professor of Political Science Nelson Wiseman wrote, “The issue of the relationship of Canadian universities with Huawei is independent of [the current dispute.] It is related to the concerns of security officials, including former directors of [the Canadian Security Intelligence Service], that Huawei is a de facto agent of China’s security service.”
Ong agrees, writing that “the risk of the UofT being caught in the middle of the spat is very small.” However, she added that “the Chinese authorities are willing to go to great lengths to protect [Huawei]” and that the university “should wait to see the Canadian government’s position on Huawei 5G technology.”
“The Trudeau administration has not made its position clear on Huawei’s 5G network. Until the government does so, I see no reason why the UofT should change its mind about Huawei.”
Clearly, U of T is not in imminent danger. But the current climate is precarious, and vigilance pays dividends. U of T’s motto, “velut arbor aevo,” roughly translates to “may it grow as a tree through the ages.” As decades of development have shown, our foundation is strong, our connections myriad, and our growth boundless. We’ve joined arms with other universities, partnered with think tanks, and intertwined with powerful, multinational corporations. But with all the Huawei chaos whirling around, we’d be wise to stop, look around, and consider if any pesky, problematic branches need pruning.