Huawei employees said to have worked with China's military

A user trying out a remote control machine with 5G technology at a Huawei booth at the Mobile World Congress in Shanghai on Wednesday. Papers from published periodicals and online research databases have shed light on how staff at Huawei teamed up wi
A user trying out a remote control machine with 5G technology at a Huawei booth at the Mobile World Congress in Shanghai on Wednesday. Papers from published periodicals and online research databases have shed light on how staff at Huawei teamed up with the People's Liberation Army on research into potential military and security applications.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Publicly disclosed studies show tie-ups on research projects, but firm denies knowledge of this

HONG KONG/BEIJING • Several Huawei Technologies employees have collaborated on research projects with Chinese armed forces personnel, indicating closer ties to the country's military than previously acknowledged by the smartphone and networking powerhouse.

Over the past decade, Huawei workers have teamed up with members of various organs of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) on at least 10 research endeavours spanning artificial intelligence to radio communications.

They include a joint effort with the investigative branch of the Central Military Commission - the armed forces' supreme body - to extract and classify emotions in online video comments, and an initiative with the National University of Defence Technology to explore ways of collecting and analysing satellite images and geographical coordinates.

Those projects are just a few of the publicly disclosed studies that shed light on how staff at China's largest tech firm teamed up with the PLA on research into an array of potential military and security applications.

Bloomberg culled the papers from published periodicals and online research databases used mainly by Chinese academics and industry specialists.

The authors identified themselves as Huawei staff and the firm's name was prominently listed at the top of the papers.

"Huawei is not aware of its employees publishing research papers in their individual capacity," spokesman Glenn Schloss said in a messaged statement.

NO R&D TIE-UPS WITH PLA LINKS

Huawei is not aware of its employees publishing research papers in their individual capacity. Huawei does not have any R&D collaboration or partnerships with the PLA-affiliated institutions. Huawei only develops and produces communications products that conform to civil standards worldwide, and does not customise R&D products for the military.

HUAWEI SPOKESMAN GLENN SCHLOSS

  • 10 Minimum number of research endeavours that Huawei workers and members of various organs of the People's Liberation Army have teamed up on, spanning artificial intelligence to radio communications.

"Huawei does not have any R&D (research and development) collaboration or partnerships with the PLA-affiliated institutions," he said. "Huawei only develops and produces communications products that conform to civil standards worldwide, and does not customise R&D products for the military."

China's Defence Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said the ministry does not comment on academic research. "As everyone knows, Huawei is a private company that has developed on its own. There is no so-called Chinese military background," he said.

Huawei chief legal officer Song Liuping yesterday reaffirmed Mr Ren's comments.

 
 

"Huawei doesn't customise products nor provide research for the military," he told reporters in Shenzhen. "We are not aware of the papers some employees have published. We don't have such joint research projects" with the PLA.

The Trump administration has imposed strict limits on Huawei's ability to do business with United States firms and urged allies to follow suit, saying the company poses a national security threat. Washington has zeroed in on what it says is Huawei's close association with the armed forces, in part because billionaire founder Ren Zhengfei was an officer who worked on communications during his military tenure.

It is unclear whether the studies that Bloomberg saw encompassed every instance of Huawei employee collaboration with the PLA. Many sensitive projects are classified or just never make it online.

While researchers with both Huawei and the military published thousands of papers, according to that database, only the 10 that Bloomberg saw were joint efforts. And the firm employs upwards of 180,000 people.

Tech firms and military agencies have been collaborating around the world for decades, generating many of the technologies that underpin the modern Internet. In China, that public-private relationship is particularly close-knit because of Beijing's sway in every sector of the economy.

But Huawei consistently plays down suggestions that Mr Ren Zhengfei's background influences the corporation in any way, and says its relationship with the military is minimal and non-political. Huawei has said it never discloses sensitive information to the government and would not, even if asked.

The Huawei founder himself has shrugged off Huawei's relationship with the military, when he spoke to foreign media for the first time in years in January.

 
 

"We have no cooperation with the military on research," he told reporters in Shenzhen in January. "Perhaps we sell them a small amount of civilian equipment. Just how much, I'm not clear on, because we don't regard them as a core customer."

The armed forces, too, have strongly denied official links to Huawei.

"Huawei is not a military company," Defence Minister Wei Fenghe said at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore earlier this month. "Do not think that because the head of Huawei used to serve in the military, then the company that he built is part of the military."

Professor Wong Kam Fai of the Chinese University of Hong Kong said it is common that universities in China and companies would collaborate with the government or military. Chinese "universities are quite open to working with the military", he said. "If it's very sensitive, it will be classified."

He added: "In the US, they have similar arrangements as well. The US has military grants."

BLOOMBERG, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 28, 2019, with the headline 'Huawei employees said to have worked with China's military'. Print Edition | Subscribe