As one American university after another suspended research ties with Huawei for its alleged ties to Chinese espionage, MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte offered a full-throttle defense of the company.
"Don't ban Huawei," read a May 2019 column published under Negroponte's name. "The U.S. should collaborate with leading technology companies and their research labs, rather than banning them."
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Negroponte, however, did not write the column, at least according to Huawei employee Winter Wright, who noted on his LinkedIn profile that he ghostwrote the article on behalf of the MIT scholar, whose research center has received millions of dollars in research funding from the Chinese tech company.
The op-ed is one aspect of the years-long relationship between Huawei and Negroponte, which continued even after MIT cut ties with the company following a 13-count federal indictment. For years, Negroponte praised Huawei and defended it against criticism; Huawei in turn funded the MIT Media Lab, a world-class research institute that Negroponte founded in 1985.
Neither Wright nor Negroponte returned requests for comment.
Negroponte is one of America's most influential public intellectuals, boasting extensive ties to the tech and government worlds. Negroponte was an angel investor in such prominent U.S. tech companies as Skype, while his brother, John Negroponte, served as the deputy secretary of state for the Bush administration.
The partnership between Negroponte and Huawei is just one example of the extensive monetary ties that exist between China and U.S. colleges. China's military-industrial complex has funneled $88 million to U.S. universities in recent years, a Washington Free Beacon review of records found. More than 100 American colleges at one point hosted a Confucius Institute, a Chinese government-funded Mandarin program that has received bipartisan criticism for being a threat to academic freedom on American campuses.
Huawei started working with MIT as far back as in 2008, when a research group under the MIT Media Lab listed the Chinese tech company's U.S. subsidiary as an industry partner. Negroponte's relationship with Huawei can be traced to 2011, when he gave a presentation at a Huawei-hosted MIT junket praising China for building telecommunication infrastructure in Africa. MIT Media Lab formally listed Huawei as a corporate sponsor between the 2012 and 2017 fiscal years. Corporate sponsorship gave the Chinese company extensive privileges, including "access to all of the research conducted at the Lab" and "full intellectual property rights."
It is unclear how much money Huawei gave to MIT Media Lab as part of its corporate sponsorship. MIT has publicly acknowledged only $500,000 in Huawei donations, but one MIT Media Lab researcher's website notes that Huawei donated $1.4 million to fund robotics research at the institution. MIT is currently the subject of a federal investigation for allegedly concealing donations from Huawei and other foreign sources.
MIT officially suspended ties with Huawei in April 2019 in response to growing public concerns about the Chinese company's role in U.S. higher education. Negroponte, however, continued to work with the company. MIT declined to discuss details about its monetary ties to Huawei other than noting that it stopped receiving Huawei funding after the ban.
Negroponte's ghostwritten op-ed—which appeared roughly a month after MIT severed ties with the tech company—argues that "Huawei has an unblemished 30-year cybersecurity record and more than 500 satisfied telecom customers around the world." Negroponte's assertion stands in contrast to disturbing reports about Huawei's activities in Africa, where the company allegedly helped African governments spy on political opponents and built IT servers in the African Union's headquarters that transferred data to a Shanghai server every morning.
The op-ed came in handy for Huawei as it tried to convince skeptical western governments across the world. The company cited the column as a voice of reason from an esteemed scholar in its public submissions to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and Australia's Department of Home Affairs, as well as in its official-position paper on cybersecurity. Chinese propagandists also boosted the op-ed, touting that "MIT scholar opposes U.S. Huawei ban."
The MIT scholar retired in December 2019, according to the university, but has continued to help Huawei in its public-relations push against Western scrutiny. Negroponte joined Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei in a high-profile round table the company hosted in June 2019, in which he denounced the U.S. government's national-security concerns about Huawei as disingenuous. He also appeared on an online panel with Huawei rotating chairman Guo Ping in May 2020.
Negroponte's decision to court Huawei donations is in line with his aggressive fundraising approach, which recently came under fire after he defended MIT Media Lab for receiving donations from convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein.
"Epstein is an extreme case," he told the Boston Globe. "But then do you take Koch money? Do you take Huawei money? And on and on?"
Huawei did not return a request for comment.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with comment from MIT.