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Australian students in China for Huawei's Seeds for the Future program. Image: Huawei

Australian universities are embracing Huawei. The government isn’t

In his LinkedIn profile photo, Weijing Wang resembles a typical businessman. He wears a fitted navy suit, a starched white shirt and a blue striped tie. He has his hands clasped in the typical head shot manner. His eyes are as soft as his wan smile. He looks utterly innocuous. But, according to Poland, he’s a spy for the Chinese government.

On Friday 11 January 2019, the public relations manager was detained by local counter intelligence officials and charged with espionage.

Huawei, a company whose Warsaw office he had worked in for over 12 years, fired him the next day. They stressed that there was no connection between Wang’s alleged illegal activities and the company. Others aren’t so sure: this was just the latest in a vast, global litany of spying-related incidents involving the telecommunications conglomerate, dating back to the mid-2000s.

It allegedly spies on other countries by implanting ‘backdoors’ or microscopic beacons in its equipment that enable surveillance by the Chinese government, including its military – which Huawei’s founder worked for as a technologist.

Western withdrawal

In response to this, major Western governments, including Australia’s, have ceased current or refused potential partnerships with the company – the 72nd largest in the world – despite there being no evidence of Chinese government surveillance through it. In August last year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced it would no longer be providing the wireless infrastructure for the new 5G network. The US and New Zealand hold similar positions with respect to their 5G plans.

“While we are protected as far as possible by current security controls, the new network, with its increased complexity, would render these current protections ineffective in 5G,” the government stated. Somewhat paradoxically, in a speech delivered in Singapore on Monday, Defence Minister Christopher said “there is no gain in stifling China’s growth and prosperity”.

The overall, Western anti-Huawei message is strong. The US, for example, is currently threatening Huawei with a trade embargo after it charged the company’s CFO with breaches of international trade sanctions against Iran. It has also advised its ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence allies – the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada – to carefully consider collaborating with Chinese companies including Huawei.

In light of the US’ actions, last week, the WA government delivered another blow to Huawei; it announced it was reviewing its contract with it to facilitate Perth’s new rail network’s 4G communications.

Near-universal uni support

Yet institutions, too, have recently suspended ties with Huawei, a prominent example of which is Oxford University.

It seems Australian universities, however, aren’t so concerned. In fact, the Australian Technology Network of Universities (ATN), including UTS, RMIT, UniSA, Curtin and James Cook University (JCU) continue to bolster them. Seeds for the Future is an annual three-week work experience program offered to 30 students who attend these universities. Established as part of the government’s New Colombo Plan, it comprises a trip to China – including a stint at Huawei’s headquarters in Shenzhen. Now in its sixth year, it shows no signs of stopping.

The ATN does not appear concerned about its collaboration with Huawei. A spokesperson provided that “[it] is not aware of any reason to change its involvement in the program, but is monitoring global events and will of course be happy to take direction from the Australian Government if they have any concerns, as part of their administration of the New Colombo Plan”.

But this isn’t the only form of collaboration between Australian universities and the tech giant. JCU, for example, also co-founded a ‘Narrow Band Internet of Things’ lab with it. This develops the technology to connect various devices across mobile networks. Huawei contributed both technology and research funds – totalling over $1 million – to fund the lab. Is this cause for national security concern? Daniel Christie, Head of Engineering at JCU, doesn’t think so. In fact, he “is confident that its partnership with Huawei does not pose any security risks”, as the lab isn’t connected to any campus network. He clarified how JCU’s Huawei-related activities differ from the government’s formerly proposed 5G ones. “It’s important to understand how different Narrowband IoT research is from the 5G roll-out … it’s not a broadband network operation,” he said.

Southern Cross University has gone a step further, becoming a ‘Huawei Authorized Information and Network Academy’ in December last year. This means the university facilitates Huawei ICT technologies training to ‘help produce job-ready graduates’. Its links with the company are well-established: in 2014, Huawei won the tender to replace its internet and CCTV networks.

Then there’s UNSW, with its connection to Huawei through its Torch Innovation precinct. The project involves collaboration between universities and Chinese companies – Huawei included – to create high-tech startups. UNSW has assured that it conducts due diligence on all of the companies it partners with, and is transparent about its dealings. But according to a report by Foreign Brief, a geopolitical risk analysis company, “in a potential future scenario of increased security tensions between Beijing and Canberra, this transparency may not be enough”.

A storm in a microchip?

Greg Austin, Professor of Cyber Security, Strategy and Diplomacy at UNSW Canberra, says the concern around Huawei and espionage is “a little confused”. In fact, he thinks it has taken on “a hysterical, irrational tone”.

“It reflects the ignorance of the realities of espionage and technologies…,” the former intelligence analyst said. “The Chinese government does not need to rely on corporations to collect intel … it can collect it by variety of means. For example, it can plant people in international corporations.”

Lyall Jordan, Sino analyst at Foreign Brief, who authored the above-mentioned report, concurred with Austin. “Like many debates involving China, the issue has become hyper-politicised,” he said. “IT experts … assert that the main concern with Huawei relates to its insufficient cybersecurity measures, largely relating to instances of buggy software.”

Austin added that universities, via their links with Huawei, and expert opinions like his, can help counter the hysteria. He added that other countries, like France, Israel and the US also spy on us. And besides, “China is not our enemy.”

“We need China to deal with climate change, bio-security, and global telecommunications. We need to balance that against the very small negative impact of espionage.”

Lyall’s view on this was more nuanced. “The main argument used is that China, specifically the Communist Party, has political values that are anathema to Australia’s, whereas, [for example,] Israel doesn’t.

“Therefore, regarding the question of whether Chinese espionage should be viewed differently to espionage by, say, Israel, the real question this masks is “Are you happy with China being a (but not the) dominant player on the world stage?”

Huawei, which did not respond to a request for comment, is hardly the first Chinese subject of Western suspicion. Research scientists, for instance, have long been under governmental surveillance.

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