Why is Huawei still in the UK?

By Zoe Kleinman
Technology reporter

Published
image copyrightGetty Images

It's not just the unseasonally cold weather that's creating a somewhat chilly climate for Huawei's UK operations.

It's been banned from the UK's 5G infrastructure and it faces ongoing scrutiny from the National Cyber Security Centre over its security practices, and whether it has links with the Chinese government, which it denies.

On a consumer level, its handset sales have plummeted all over Europe since the US introduced a trade ban, which makes them incompatible with essential Google apps, including Gmail, Google Maps and the Play Store.

And yet while you or I might have got our coats and left by now, Huawei remains. Not only is it still here, it's still investing in the UK - creating jobs, and funding university research.

It insists its reasons are altruistic - that it takes pride in its collaborative work here and admires UK innovation - and says it gains in return valuable research insight into the future direction of the telecoms industry.

It is speaking out following a slew of negative press about its associations with some of the country's top academic institutions - which have a tendency to keep quiet about their connections.

Critics say universities should not be accepting its cash. But plenty are.

Huawei says it has "partnerships" with 35 UK universities including Imperial College London, Surrey, Cambridge and Southampton. It also has its own in-house research and development centres in Bristol, Ipswich and Edinburgh, and two in Cambridge, and says it has spent an annual average of £80m over the last ten years on UK-based research in general.

Part of the issue is that these partnerships are shrouded in secrecy. Journalists like me regularly get research news from universities, and academics are often keen to trumpet who has sponsored their latest breakthrough, in order to maintain their funding.

This is not so common when that funding comes from Huawei, and it makes some in government uneasy.

"These quiet ongoing partnerships between British universities and Chinese state-backed companies must be more transparent," said MP Tom Tugendhat, who co-runs the China Research Group.

"Universities need to think hard about who they choose to partner with."

Huawei denies any links with the Chinese state.

'Due diligence'

Oxford University suspended new donations and sponsorships with Huawei in 2019 but I contacted three universities known to have ongoing relationships with the firm.

Southampton University told me it had a "strategic corporate partnership" with Huawei but did not spell out what it was.

Edinburgh said its collaboration focused on "new technologies in data management and information technology" and added that it had "undergone a rigorous process of due diligence".

Cambridge did not respond.

Huawei insists that it doesn't mind the lack of publicity. It's not unusual for collaborators to sign non-disclosure agreements because of the confidential nature of research, it says.

It adds that it doesn't want intellectual property either - despite a keen interest in patents, it says it hardly ever takes ownership of the research from universities who make discoveries with its co-operation.

It's not even after the brain power - while it "sometimes" employs UK university graduates, the affable Victor Zhang, Huawei's UK Vice-President, says he can't recall poaching any UK-based professors.

"We are proud of our partnerships with universities and we wish for those partnerships to continue," he says.

Mr Zhang gives me three reasons why Huawei UK remains:

  • there is still Huawei kit in legacy broadband infrastructure, largely belonging to BT and Vodafone, which it says needs maintaining
  • it is "proud" of its UK partnerships
  • it "admires" the UK's innovation and corporate social responsibilities in areas such as climate change research

"We give universities money, technology and platforms for research," he says, "and we take awareness of the direction of the future."

Mr Zhang insists the firm is "not buying something" with its largesse, and that to think that it is, is a "misunderstanding".

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionFormer Science Minister Jo Johnson believes China research partnerships need to be maintained.

Tom Tugendhat argues that funding from China "rarely comes without strings attached".

Perhaps Huawei is playing the long game, hoping that one day all of the controversy will melt away, there will be a new threat to focus on, and it can resume business as usual.

Certainly the UK has not cooled on all Chinese relationships, and economically, it's clear why.

The number of Chinese students at UK universities has more than trebled since 2006, according to the National Institute of Economics and Social Research.

Tuition fees from Chinese students add up to at least £1.7bn a year across universities and independent schools.

And at an event last week, former science minister Jo Johnson said that the number of UK-China research partnerships has ballooned from 750 in 2000 to 16,000 in 2020, although he acknowledged that universities could "better organise themselves" in terms of the contracts they negotiate, served perhaps by a centralised framework.

However, severing those ties, he said, would "pose a severe handicap" to UK research.

"The idea that any decoupling of China is in the national interest seems to me highly unlikely," he said.