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Opinion Congress wants DeVos to investigate Chinese research partnerships on American campuses

People walk past a Huawei sign at the CES Asia consumer electronics show in Shanghai last week. (REUTERS/Aly Song)
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The White House and Congress are at odds over whether to save Chinese telecom giant ZTE, which has been accused of threatening U.S. national security. But that’s not the only Chinese company in lawmakers’ sights. Huawei, another Chinese “national champion” technology firm, is attracting scrutiny for its partnerships with American colleges and universities in areas of technology that the Chinese government is trying to dominate.

A bipartisan group of 26 lawmakers wrote Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Tuesday to highlight the national security implications of Huawei’s research partnerships and other relationships with several dozen American colleges and universities. They want Devos to investigate the Huawei Innovation Research Program and other programs through which Huawei partners with institutes of higher education across the country.

“We believe these partnerships may pose a significant threat to national security and this threat demands your attention and oversight,” states the letter, which was organized by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.). “Huawei is not a normal private sector company the way we have grown accustomed to thinking of the commercial economy in the West.”

Huawei’s program, according to its website, funds universities and institutes conducting research in communication technology, computer science, engineering and related fields. The lawmakers told DeVos that she should convene a task force to investigate these partnerships and be briefed on Huawei by top intelligence and law enforcement officials.

The U.S. intelligence community has warned for years of Huawei’s links to the Chinese government and the People’s Liberation Army. Huawei benefits from extensive government support, which has fueled long-standing concern that the company’s equipment in the United States could be used by the Chinese government for spying, cyberattacks or industrial and economic espionage.

Now lawmakers are arguing that Huawei’s partnerships with U.S. institutions of higher education pose broader risks to America’s leadership in the innovation and technology sectors.

“China is using Huawei to position themselves to steal American research,” Rubio told me. “They are using so-called ‘research partnerships’ with over 50 American universities to exploit the openness of our schools.”

Right now, Congress is focused on ZTE because the Trump administration lifted a ban on that firm purchasing U.S. components imposed earlier this year. The ban was intended to punish the company for busting U.S. sanctions against Iran and North Korea. After Chinese President Xi Jingping personally intervened, Trump reversed himself and allowed ZTE to pay a fine and make some management changes.

The Senate voted 85 to 10 this week to reinstate the ban until Trump can certify ZTE has complied with U.S. law for at least one year. The Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Bill also would prohibit any U.S. government purchase or funding of equipment from ZTE or Huawei.

Rubio and Banks believe that both ZTE and Huawei — as virtual arms of the Chinese government’s overall economic aggression strategy — should be banned from buying U.S. technology components, even if that means they go out of business.

Separately, the Federal Communications Commission is proposing new rules that would prevent federal subsidies going to state and local governments if they purchase foreign telecom that poses a national security risk to the United States. In explaining its proposal, the FCC singled out ZTE and Huawei.

Banks, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee and the House Education Committee’s subcommittee on higher education, told me that research partnerships at universities are particularly worrisome because they operate under less oversight and transparency.

“It’s fairly obvious to me the Department of Education isn’t at all aware of the threat that Huawei poses, the infiltration that they have succeeded in accomplishing with a broad number of universities around the country,” he said. “Huawei is a snake in the grass. Their influence on these college campuses is alarming.”

The lawmakers want universities partnering with Huawei to hand over the contracts and details, especially at universities that receive federal funding or participate in research dealing with classified information. If they don’t comply, Congress could hold related funding as leverage.

U.S. law enforcement officials have repeatedly expressed concern over Chinese infiltration and espionage on U.S. campuses. FBI Director Christopher A. Wray testified in February that the bureau is “watching warily” as the Chinese government expands on American campuses in many ways, including through Confucius Institutes and research partnerships.

“They’re exploiting the very open research and development environment that we have, which we all revere. But they’re taking advantage of it,” Wray said.

Huawei denies its ties to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and all accusations of cyberespionage. The company did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is launching a series of actions to confront Chinese economic aggression, especially intellectual property theft, forced technology transfer and predatory investment by Chinese “national champion” companies. But the back and forth over ZTE shows the need for a clear, organized and public plan.

Dan Blumenthal, director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, puts it this way: “There needs to be a consistent, comprehensive strategy that pushes back on all elements of Chinese economic aggression and that includes holding the line against ZTE and against Huawei.”

Wray testified that the Chinese government’s strategy represents a “whole-of-society threat” that will require the United States to mount a “whole-of-society response.” The U.S. government, Congress and our institutions of higher education must come together on a shared assessment of this threat and a strategy for how to confront it.