Don't opt out: click here to learn more about our work.

Opinion: U of T should be wary of Huawei partnership

Chinese government’s influence on Huawei may put the university’s partnership at risk

Opinion: U of T should be wary of Huawei partnership

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.

U of T, Huawei extend multimillion-dollar research partnership by five years

Examining intellectual property rights, national security concerns surrounding the Chinese tech giant in Canada

U of T, Huawei extend multimillion-dollar research partnership by five years

U of T and Huawei, the world’s largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer, have extended their multimillion-dollar research partnership by five years. The initial partnership began in 2016 and has seen over $3.5 million funnelled from the private Chinese company to dozens of research projects at the university. The extension of the partnership comes on the tail of concerns circulating for months about whether the company’s operations in Canada pose a threat to national security.

Vivek Goel, the Vice-President of Research and Innovation at U of T, told The Varsity that “since signing the partnership agreement, Huawei has supported dozens of U of T projects involving more than 30 principal investigations and their trainees.”

“Such partnerships boost opportunities for innovation and education by providing researchers and students with tools, technologies and data that might otherwise be inaccessible,” Goel said.

Private sector partnership and intellectual property rights

Much of the partnership research takes place at U of T’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. The research focuses on the development of new circuits for high-speed connections and designs for 5G cellular networks, the next stage in mobile communications technology.

In 2016–2017, U of T received $125 million in research funding from the private sector, making up 10.8 per cent of its total research funding. The university declined to reveal whether there was a minimum funding guarantee from Huawei over the next five years, citing proprietary information. The partnership agreement itself is not a public document.

Scott Bradley, Huawei’s Vice-President of Corporate Affairs in Canada, told The Varsity that numerous research papers are among the products of the research partnership with U of T. Papers, along with patents, make up the determinants of success for Huawei’s continuation of its partnerships. “New ideas and leading-edge research helps to serve as a foundation for new technologies that could be developed in the future – either by Huawei, by the students and academics doing the research, or by other Canadian researchers,” Bradley said in an email.

An investigation by The Globe and Mail in May highlighted the scope of Huawei’s global research partnerships in the company’s race to cement itself as a global leader in 5G technologies. One element of the Globe investigation was Huawei’s hold over the exclusive licensing rights of research in 40 cases, and the licensing of intellectual property rights from other researchers.

All research covered under the scope of U of T and Huawei’s agreement includes joint licensing rights. “The focus of our investment at the University of Toronto and other Canadian universities is in pure research,” Bradley said, “not the development of specific products.”

With regard to intellectual property, Goel said that U of T’s agreements with Huawei are “as strong or stronger” than with its other industry partners.

National security concerns

Huawei, which is headquartered in Shenzhen, is also a world leader in networking systems, and it is the second largest smartphone manufacturer after Samsung.

The company works with 13 universities in Canada, including Carleton University, the University of British Columbia, and the University of Waterloo, and dozens more around the world. While its global influence in research is vast — with 16 research and development centres across North and South America, Europe, and Asia — the company has faced scrutiny over whether its operations could pose threats to national security.

The United States and Australia both banned Huawei’s equipment from use in government and communications infrastructure this summer. Security officials in the United States urged the Canadian government to do the same, prompting a federal probe into the company’s operations in the country and revealing a history of tests on Huawei’s equipment.

The head of the Centre for Cyber Security and Canada’s top cybersecurity official, Scott Jones, affirmed to the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security on September 20 that banning Huawei from Canada is not necessary.

On Huawei’s end, Bradley said that “while these issues have recently received media coverage, these are not new questions for Huawei Canada, Canadian operators, or the Canadian Government.”

Huawei opened its first Canadian office in 2008. Since then, according to Bradley, “Huawei has worked openly and transparently to address these issues with the Canadian Government and Canadian operators over this time without issue.” Bradley called Huawei’s track record “our commitment to Canada.”

Goel said that the university works with individuals or organizations that are legally operating in Canada and that the government has not provided any direction regarding issues of national security.

Responses to Chinese state influence on Huawei’s operations

The thrust behind concerns of Huawei in Canada stem from the company’s inextricable ties to the Chinese state.

“[All Chinese firms] have to listen to the government one way or the other, because they operate in an authoritarian environment,” Lynette Ong, an Associate Professor of Political Science at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, told The Varsity. “The government has the power to shut down your company, to keep the business leaders in check.”

Ong said that she has no reason to believe that Huawei is outside of the Chinese government’s control. “Huawei will have to toe the government line if the government wants the company to do so.”

Concerns about Huawei’s operations aren’t limited to Canada, Australia, or the United States alone: a report in The Globe and Mail in May revealed that Huawei was working on advanced security technology with the Chinese government in the turbulent Xinjiang region. The Chinese government has been developing Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, into a centre for technologies used in public surveillance in a region facing threats of terrorism and radicalization.

“This is a very sensitive issue,” Ong said, “so I think U of T should be proceeding with caution.”

Bradley declined to comment on allegations that Huawei has been involved in the development of technology for state surveillance in China.

Goel said that U of T works “with partner organizations, companies, [and] NGOs right around the world, and it’s not possible for us to be the ones that are going to evaluate what’s happening in every part of the world with every organization we work with.”

“We rely on our partners in government to identify if there are organizations we shouldn’t be working with,” Goel said.

Len Brooks, a Professor of Business Ethics & Accounting in UTM’s Department of Management, said that the operations of the university’s research partners outside of just the scope of their research agreement should be taken into account, but shouldn’t be the sole determinant of the continuation of relationships. He noted the importance of ongoing monitoring by the university to stay abreast of the activities of their partners.

“The partnerships you make [as a university] bear upon your reputation,” Brooks said. “It would be a mistake to consider only the financial side of this.”