BOSTON - APRIL 5: Ray and Maria Stata Center on the campus of MIT April 5, 2012 in Boston, MA. The academic complex was designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Frank Gehry. ID 24253324 © Sean Pavone | Dreamstime.com
MIT determined that 'engagements with certain countries . . . merit additional faculty and administrative review beyond the usual evaluations that all international projects receive' © Dreamstime

Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the world’s top universities, is cutting ties with Chinese telecoms groups Huawei and ZTE and ramping up its screening process for research and other collaboration proposals from China in a move that includes Hong Kong.

Several elite universities in the US, Australia and the UK, including Stanford and Oxford, have already stopped taking funding from Huawei after the US government accused the company of stealing American technology and breaking US sanctions against Iran. These concerns have spilled over into wider fears in Washington of intellectual property theft, espionage and China’s growing tech capability.

MIT said it would not engage in any future projects with Huawei and ZTE, or renew existing ones.

Huawei said it was “disappointed” by MIT’s decision. “We believe that scientific research is carried out for the benefit of all mankind, and should be free from the influence of geopolitics,” a company statement said. ZTE declined to comment.

In a letter on its website, Richard Lester, associate provost, and Maria Zuber, vice-president for research, said MIT had determined that “engagements with certain countries . . . merit additional faculty and administrative review beyond the usual evaluations that all international projects receive”.

Countries subject to MIT’s “elevated risk” review process are China, including Hong Kong, Russia and Saudi Arabia.

“Special attention will be paid to risks related to intellectual property, export controls, data security and access, economic competitiveness, national security, and political, civil and human rights, as well as potential impacts on the MIT community, consistency with MIT’s core values, and alignment with MIT’s academic mission,” the letter said.

Some alumni attributed MIT’s move to government pressure. “The president of MIT is among the most open-minded university presidents anywhere,” said one mainland investor, who is an alumnus and prominent donor to the university.

“But MIT gets so much government funding, especially from the Pentagon, that the pressure was enormous. To them, it was a sacrifice they had to make.”

Hong Kong is becoming increasingly caught up in the angst surrounding China tech. In its latest State Department report on the territory last month, policymakers flagged Hong Kong’s “diminished” autonomy from China,” citing concerns over Beijing’s increasing interference in local affairs. Another Congress-commissioned report by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission recommended Congress revisit the export control policy for dual-use technology in Hong Kong.

MIT last year announced a tie-up with SenseTime, a Hong Kong-based artificial intelligence company that specialises in facial recognition — much of which is supplied to China’s public security bureau — describing it as part of MIT’s efforts to “define the next frontier of human and machine intelligence”.

SenseTime was founded by Xiao’ou Tang, an MIT alumnus and a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“Many Chinese scientists in the US are already on alert and nervous,” said Chen Zhiwu, head of the Asia Global Institute at the University of Hong Kong. “This will ratchet up the pressure on them. More of them will focus on what they can do in China going forward.”

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