Huawei staff have teamed up with Chinese military scientists to carry out research, a collaboration which challenges the telecom group’s assertion that it has no ties to Beijing or the armed forces.

Founded by former People’s Liberation Army engineer Ren Zhengfei, Washington suspects Huawei has deep ties to the PLA and poses a security threat.

US President Donald Trump placed the privately-owned company on a blacklist last month, which prevents American firms from selling components to Huawei. This, in turn, raised tensions as the US-China trade war rumbled on.

Still, several research papers published since 2009 show its employees have worked with researchers at different arms of the PLA, according to Bloomberg News.

Military and private sector collaboration is common in many countries but Huawei has gone to great lengths to deny reports that it has a close relationship with the Chinese government or armed forces.

Earlier this year, Microsoft researchers in China raised eyebrows for their work with scholars affiliated with the country’s military-backed university. These were researchers from the same university that worked with a Huawei employee on at least one project.

The company’s staff and PLA members have worked together on at least 10 research projects including artificial intelligence, or AI, and radio communications, according to Bloomberg.

Ren has constantly denied Huawei maintains military connections.

Academic papers

“We don’t have any R&D collaboration or partnerships with the PLA-affiliated institutions,” he told the media in January.

“We are probably selling a small amount of civilian products to the PLA, but I don’t know the exact number, because it is not our major customer,” he Ran added.

But the academic papers list the names of the researchers and the Huawei units they work for.

An employee at the group’s Shanghai office is listed as the lead author of one research project alongside a member of PLA unit 78156. Another researcher is listed at an investigative center under the Central Military Commission.

The project focused on better understanding and classifying the emotions of comments on online videos, and appeared to be funded by a Chinese government information security program.

Yet another paper was authored by an employee at Huawei’s Beijing office who teamed up with a computer scientist from the National University of Defense Technology, and other researchers, to look into methods of analyzing software quality, security and reliability.

In response, a Huawei spokeswoman said it was not aware of its employees publishing research papers in their individual capacity and added that the company does not have R&D collaboration with PLA-affiliated institutions.

Media push

China’s Ministry of Defence made it clear that it does not comment on academic research.

“As everybody knows, Huawei is a privately-owned company that has developed independently,” spokesman Ren Guoqiang said at a monthly briefing on Thursday. “There is no such thing as [Huawei] having a Chinese military background.”

Since coming under fire from Washington last year, Huawei has adopted an aggressive media push to deny the alleged close relations with Beijing and espionage accusations.

But the denials, particularly from Ren, have occasionally led to messaging mishaps for the company.

In an interview with the BBC in February, he denied that Huawei received government subsidies.

But company records show the group has taken in hundreds of millions of dollars in research grants from Beijing during the last decade.

In addition, it has been awarded heavily subsidized land and massive credit lines from state policy banks to help sell its telecom gear abroad.

Again, in response, a Huawei spokeswoman said that Ren had meant Huawei did not receive any “special” subsidies from the government.

AFP