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MIT Cuts Funding And Research Ties With China's Huawei And ZTE

A Huawei booth is pictured at a computer expo in Germany in 2012. MIT is cutting ties with the Chinese company. (Nigel Treblin/DAPD)
A Huawei booth is pictured at a computer expo in Germany in 2012. MIT is cutting ties with the Chinese company. (Nigel Treblin/DAPD)

Four months after saying it had no "compelling case" to sever ties with Saudi Arabia, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology now says it will more closely scrutinize relationships with that country and two others, China and Russia.

And in its first actions under the new review policy, MIT will cut funding and research connections with two Chinese technology firms, Huawei and ZTE.

In a letter to the university community, MIT Associate Provost Richard Lester and Vice President for Research Maria Zuber attributed the decision to "federal investigations regarding violations of sanction restrictions. The Institute will revisit collaborations with these entities as circumstances dictate."

Lester, Zuber and an MIT spokeswoman did not respond to interview requests.

The U.S. government has warned that Huawei and ZTE, China's largest manufacturers of telecommunications equipment, may allow the Chinese government to spy on users.

In January, the Justice Department unsealed an indictment that accuses Huawei of financial crimes and violations of U.S. sanctions on Iran. The Justice Department is also seeking to extradite Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou, who was arrested in Vancouver last December on a U.S. warrant.

The extent of MIT's relationships with Huawei and ZTE is unclear, but Huawei has funded the MIT Media Lab and been a member of the lab's consortium, a status that grants "access to all of the research conducted at the lab, lab-wide visiting privileges, invitations to semi-annual member-only events, and full intellectual property rights," according to the lab's website.

In the 2015 Huawei marketing video below, MIT Media Lab Principal Research Scientist Michael Bove said that "a consortium member like Huawei joins the lab not to fund a particular project but to buy a share in everything."

"Huawei is interested in educational technology," Bove added. "Huawei is interested in future ways in which people will communicate with one another, and we certainly have projects in all of those areas."

Bove declined an interview request.

Now, MIT says it is implementing a new, three-phase review process for "elevated-risk international proposals" involving China, Russia and Saudi Arabia. The change includes the formation of a "senior risk group," comprising Lester, Zuber and Vice President and General Counsel Mark DiVincenzo.

The senior risk group can "either approve the project with a risk management plan or decide that the project cannot proceed," according to the letter from Lester and Zuber.

MIT previously considered breaking off its relationships with Saudi Arabian donors and organizations after the murder last year of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who wrote for the Washington Post. The CIA concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was behind the killing.

"It is true that those organizations are part of a government that has been implicated in the murder of journalist Khashoggi, that is pursuing repressive policies at home, and whose participation in the Yemeni civil war has been widely condemned," Lester wrote in a letter last December, explaining the decision not to cut ties.

"However," he added, "there has been no suggestion that any of these organizations had any role in the planning and execution of the operation that ended in Mr. Khashoggi's murder. ... On the positive side, these organizations are supporting important research and activities at MIT on terms that honor our principles and comply with our policies. They are also providing critical resources to support the education of outstanding Saudi students and women scientists and engineers, who will surely be in the vanguard of social change in that country."

MIT has not specified why Russia is on its list of countries that will receive additional scrutiny, but the recently completed federal probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election produced indictments of more than two dozen Russians and Russian groups.

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Callum Borchers Twitter Reporter
Callum covers the Greater Boston business community for Bostonomix.

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