The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has severed ties with Huawei and ZTE as U.S. authorities investigate the Chinese firms for alleged sanctions violations.
MIT is the latest top educational institution to unplug telecom equipment made by Huawei and other Chinese companies to avoid losing federal funding.
The university said it chose to suspend ties with the companies following a review of projects that posed an ‘elevated risk.’
As part of the move, MIT will also apply added scrutiny to collaborations with China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, said Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research.
In addition to MIT, U.S. academic institutions including Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Minnesota have also suspended ties with Huawei and ZTE.
‘MIT is not accepting new engagements or renewing existing ones with Huawei and ZTE or their respective subsidiaries due to federal investigations regarding violations of sanction restrictions,’ Zuber said.
‘The institute will revisit collaborations with these entities as circumstances dictate,’ she said.
Britain’s Oxford University stopped accepting funding from Huawei this year.
‘We’re disappointed by MIT’s decision, but we understand the pressure they’re under at the moment,’ Huawei said on Thursday.
The company denies the allegations of the U.S. government.
We trust the U.S. judicial system will ultimately reach the right conclusion,’ Huawei said.
ZTE did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.
Representatives for Zuber and Richard Lester, an associate provost at MIT who also signed the letter, referred questions about details such as how much research was likely to be affected to MIT spokespeople, who did not immediately respond.
In a letter to MIT faculty at the start of the current school year, Lester wrote that in cases where U.S. and Chinese interests are in direct conflict, MIT would prioritize its home country.
Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer and daughter of its founder Ren Zhengfei, was arrested in Canada in December at the request of the United States on charges of bank and wire fraud in violation of U.S. sanctions against Iran.
She denies wrongdoing.
U.S. sanctions forced ZTE to stop most business between April and July last year after Commerce Department officials said it broke a pact and was caught illegally shipping U.S.-origin goods to Iran and North Korea.
The sanctions were lifted after ZTE paid $1.4 billion in penalties.
In Beijing, the Foreign Ministry referred questions to the two companies, but said Chinese firms were required to abide by local laws.
‘At the same time, we ask that governments in countries where they are based provide a just, fair, and nondiscriminatory environment,’ its spokesman, Geng Shuang, told a news briefing on Thursday.
Chinese telecoms equipment makers have also been facing mounting scrutiny, led by the United States, amid worries Beijing could use their equipment for spying.
The companies, however, have said the concerns are unfounded.
WHY ARE HUAWEI AND ZTE CONSIDERED A ‘NATIONAL SECURITY THREAT’?
Huawei P20 Pro (pictured) is the latest flagship phone from the Shenzhen-based company, which is now the third largest smartphone manufacturer in the world
The heads of the FBI, CIA, NSA, and the director of US National Intelligence, have warned against the use of Huawei and ZTE smartphones.
Elsewhere, the Pentagon ordered all retail outlets on US military bases to stop selling Huawei and ZTE branded smartphones.
FBI director Chris Wray said the government was ‘deeply concerned about the risks of allowing any company or entity that is beholden to foreign governments that don’t share our values to gain positions of power inside our telecommunications networks.’
These concerns stem from the fact that both Huawei and ZTE have demonstrable links to the Chinese government.
Huawei founder and president Ren Zhengfei had a successful military career in China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and ZTE has close financial ties to the Chinese government.
Other Chinese companies such as Lenovo, Xiaomi, and Oppo do not have the same ties and as such, haven’t drawn the same scrutiny from US politicians.
‘Huawei is effectively an arm of the Chinese government, and it’s more than capable of stealing information from U.S. officials by hacking its devices,” Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton said earlier this year.
‘There are plenty of other companies that can meet our technology needs, and we shouldn’t make it any easier for China to spy on us’.
However, there has yet to be any public evidence that Huawei or ZTE products could endanger the privacy or digital security of consumers.
Huawei and ZTE both dispute claims from the US government they pose a threat to national security.
A spokesperson for Huawei said: ‘Huawei is aware of a range of US government activities seemingly aimed at inhibiting Huawei’s business in the US market.
‘Huawei is trusted by governments and customers in 170 countries worldwide and poses no greater cybersecurity risk than any ICT vendor, sharing as we do common global supply chains and production capabilities.’
In a statement, ZTE said: ‘As a publicly traded company, we are committed to adhering to all applicable laws and regulations of the United States, work with carriers to pass strict testing protocols, and adhere to the highest business standards.
‘ZTE takes cybersecurity and privacy seriously and remains a trusted partner to our US suppliers, US customers and the people who use our products.’