The University of Oxford has placed an indefinite ban on accepting research grants or donations from the Chinese telecoms firm Huawei, which is facing mounting concerns from several governments about whether it poses a risk to national security.
The decision emerged the day after the US prosecutors reportedly opened an investigation into Huawei for alleged theft of trade secrets from American firms. Berlin is also reportedly weighing up measures to exclude the company from working on the rollout of 5G mobile infrastructure in Germany.
Oxford said its ban on Huawei funding was linked to “public concerns raised in recent months surrounding UK partnerships with Huawei”.
The defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, and MPs on the foreign affairs select committee have voiced fears about the company’s role in 5G.
“We hope these matters can be resolved shortly and note Huawei’s own willingness to reassure governments about its role and activities,” Oxford said. “The university will continue with existing research contracts where funding from Huawei has already been received or committed.
“We currently have two such ongoing projects, with a combined funding from Huawei of £692k. Both projects were approved under the university’s regulatory processes before the current levels of uncertainty arose.”
According to an email notifying doctoral students of the donation ban, extracts of which were published in the South China Morning Post, students were told they could maintain a relationship with Huawei if they wished to do so.
“The [committee] met last week and have decided to suspend Huawei as an approved gift donor/research sponsor,” the email said.
“If you are in contact with anyone from Huawei, do note that this decision doesn’t prevent you from maintaining a relationship with them but we would recommend that no confidential or proprietary information is discussed.”
A Huawei spokesperson said: “We were not informed of this decision and await the university’s full explanation. As a private, employee-owned technology company, with a strong track record in R&D we believe partnership decisions should, like research, be evidence based.
“We have operated in the UK since 2001, employ 1,500 people here and have long standing collaborations with 20 other UK universities, working with them to research the technologies of the future.”
In 1998, UK universities decided to refuse money from tobacco firms for cancer research. However, Oxford has since faced criticism for accepting a £75m donation from the Russian billionaire Len Blavatnik and funding from the oil company Shell.
Details of its ban on Huawei funding emerged shortly after reports that the US Department of Justice was to investigate the alleged theft of trade secrets from US firms by the Shenzhen-based company.
The Chinese state-run Global Times said the latest moves were a form of “technological McCarthyism” aimed at politicising and blocking Chinese businesses. Hu Xijin, its editor, said he believed US attitudes toward China had reached a level of hysteria.
Her father’s background, having served in the Chinese military and the Communist party, is among factors that have further stoked suspicion about Huawei in several countries.
The company has been banned from involvement in the installation of 5G mobile networks in India, New Zealand and Australia, blocked from making acquisitions in the US and banned by the Pentagon from selling phones on American military bases.