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Opinion Huawei’s surprising ties to the Brookings Institution

A woman walks by a Huawei logo at a shopping mall in Shanghai, China. (Aly Song/Reuters/File)

In October 2017, the Brookings Institution, one of Washington’s most prestigious think tanks, published a report entitled “Benefits and Best Practices of Safe City Innovation.” The report included a case study praising the Kenyan capital Nairobi and the Chinese city of Lijiang for implementing new technology in policing.

What the report failed to mention is that the controversial Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei provided the technology for both cities, or that Huawei is one of the world’s leading sellers of Safe City equipment, which the company describes as “cutting-edge” security to improve policing and oversight. The Brookings report did, at least, disclose who provided support for the research: “Support for this publication was generously provided by Huawei.” In other words, Brookings praised Huawei’s technology in a report sponsored by Huawei.

(“Brookings has Donor Guidelines that govern all fundraising and donor engagement activities,” said Emily Horne, vice president of communications at Brookings. “Brookings will not accept gifts from donors who seek to undermine the independence of its scholars’ research or otherwise to predetermine or influence recommendations.”)

Nonetheless, Brookings has a conflict of interest problem with Huawei — the world’s second-largest smartphone maker, behind Samsung and ahead of Apple, and a company long seen as a threat to the United States. On Dec. 5, the news broke that Canada had arrested Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou for extradition to the United States for allegedly violating Iran sanctions.

That move not only deepens tensions between the United States and China, but also highlights why U.S. government officials view Huawei as a problematic company. In May 2018, the Pentagon recommended stores on U.S. military bases stop selling phones from Huawei as well as the Chinese tech giant ZTE because they may “pose an unacceptable risk,” according to a Pentagon spokesman. The company “is effectively an arm of the Chinese government,” Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton said in February, “and it’s more than capable of stealing information from U.S. officials by hacking its devices.” (Huawei has long denied those allegations.)

Between July 2016 and June 2018, Huawei gave at least $300,000 to Brookings, via FutureWei Technologies, Inc., a U.S.-based subsidiary of the company, according to Brookings' annual reports. “As part of our commitment to transparency, Huawei’s support for the Governance Studies program at Brookings is listed in our 2018, 2017, and 2013 Annual Reports, which are the only years for which contributions were received from the company,” said Horne. (Huawei contributed between $100,000 and $249,000 to Brookings from July 2012 to June 2013.)

The person who wrote the Safe Cities report (along with a former Brookings intern) is Darrell M. West, Brookings vice president and founding director of its Center for Technology Innovation. Formerly a professor at Brown University, West has written 19 books, according to his LinkedIn page, and is a respected commentator on issues involving technology policy, privacy and security. Yet West’s relationship with Huawei raises questions about the independence of his scholarship — and represents a worrying example of China’s influence on one of America’s leading think tanks. West didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

West joined Brookings in 2008. His connection with Huawei goes back at least to 2012, when he spoke about broadband development at a Huawei conference in Barcelona, according to Huawei’s website. In 2013, West met Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei at a technology conference, according to his 2014 book “Billionaires: Reflections on the Upper Crust,” which Brookings Institution Press published. Although news accounts describe Ren as reclusive, West writes, he found Ren “charming, articulate, and funny.” (Huawei didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.)

As Beijing has grown more powerful over the last several years, it has grown more effective in influencing the debate in America about China, often in subtle ways. In 2014, West spoke at Huawei Innovation Day in Milan. By then, the U.S. government had mostly blocked Huawei from the U.S. market, and in a damning October 2012 report, the U.S. House Intelligence Committee called the company a national security threat amidst allegations it had stolen sensitive information from American companies. At that Huawei-sponsored event, West took Huawei’s side. “I think the way that Huawei has been singled out by the U.S. government has been unfair and counterproductive,” West said.

West has spoken at several Huawei events. (“Brookings’ policies permit our scholars to receive travel reimbursement and honorariums for activities such as speeches and conference attendance, so long as they comply with our policies on conflict of interest and research independence,” said Horne. “Our records indicate this scholar adhered to these policies regarding reimbursement and disclosure.”) West attended Huawei’s fourth annual European Innovation Day in Paris in 2016, where he shared “his thoughts on how wireless technology is reshaping our lives,” according to a Huawei press release.

But West’s most eyebrow-raising speaking event came in November 2017, when he presented the findings of his October report at a Huawei conference in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur. Huawei’s website posted a story entitled “Brookings Institution releases report ranking global cities on public safety innovation at Huawei Asia Pacific Innovation Day 2017,” featuring a photo of West speaking. The PowerPoint presentation is online. The slides feature the Brookings logo — but a sentence in small font on the last slide includes a copyright, which Horne said “was not in our version of the final slides,” and so “we are contacting Huawei and asking them to remove it, as it is not accurate.” It reads: “Copyright©2017 Huawei Technologies Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved.”

- With research by Keenan Chen.

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