U.S. Blocks ‘China’s MIT’ from Access to American Engineering Software

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The U.S. has blocked China’s top engineering university from access to American software critical to laboratory work, the Nikkei Asian Review reported on Wednesday.

On May 22, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) extended its Entity List of Chinese organizations that would have their access to American technology restricted, adding Chinese educational institutions to the so-called blacklist. In a statement, the BIS said that entities are added to the list “for engaging in activities contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States” or for “represent[ing] a significant risk of supporting procurement of items for military end-use in China.”

Harbin Institute of Technology (HIT) was one of the Chinese educational institutions added to the list in late May and, according to the report, its access to American engineering software has already been cut off.

Known as the Chinese equivalent of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), or “China’s MIT,” the research university in northeast China currently outranks MIT and Stanford University as the number one university in the world for electrical and electronic engineering, according to the most recent U.S. News & World Report “Best Global Universities” list.

News that HIT had lost access to U.S. engineering software first emerged last week after screenshots of an email exchange between HIT and U.S.-based software developer MathWorks were shared on social media. According to the emails, HIT students complained to MathWorks that they were unable to access software purchased by the university. In response, MathWorks said it could no longer provide the university with access to the software “due to recent U.S. government regulations.”

The software, called MATLAB, is commonly used by engineering students for everyday studies and laboratory work. HIT students confirmed to the Nikkei that their access to MATLAB had been suspended last week. According to other researchers and alumni associated with HIT, the engineering students there are sure to feel the absence of such critical software.

Speaking to the Nikkei, a researcher who previously worked for HIT’s School of Astronautics said his laboratory relies “heavily” on U.S. technology, and that he believes finding an alternative to U.S software will be “nearly impossible.”

“Most [simulation] software is from the U.S., and no other countries supply such software,” the researcher said.

HIT provides the lion’s share of research for China’s astronautics industry, which suggests that the software restrictions could have major repercussions for Beijing’s broader agenda. According to the report, HIT is also instrumental in developing advanced medical equipment for China’s medical industry, a pursuit which has been prioritized under the Chinese Communist Party’s “Made in China 2025” strategy, meaning this initiative may also suffer.

A HIT civil engineering student told the Nikkei that American software companies provided “at least two important tools used for computer-aided designs and engineering simulations” in his field. He said that he worried losing access to the software would “isolate [students] from what’s going on out there, and slow down research and scientific development.”

Another HIT student majoring in biomedical engineering told the Nikkei that his laboratory is reliant upon “U.S. high-end chipsets to process medical images.” He echoes the astronautics researcher in saying that quality alternatives to U.S. tech products are difficult, if not impossible, to come by.

“Chinese companies such as Huawei have also developed artificial intelligence chips, but not all of its products are of comparable quality or are the global standard, as the chips designed by Nvidia of the U.S. are. It is challenging for us [Chinese] to build cutting-edge solutions upon domestic hardware,” he explained.

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