U.S. Military Ban Locks Chinese Universities out of Major Science and Engineering System

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China’s Harbin Institute of Technology and Harbin Engineering University have been blocked from accessing MATLAB, a major science and engineering software platform, after being added to a banned entities list last week for links to the Chinese military.

MathWorks, the U.S. company that produces MATLAB, began informing students from the two Chinese universities this week that they could no longer log into the system, which offers a high-level programming language and extensive suite of tools useful for mathematical modeling, like a vastly more complex version of the tools a program such as Microsoft Office provides for basic word processing and accounting. 

“Due to recent U.S. government regulations, MathWorks is prohibited from providing technical or customer support to Harbin Engineering University and Harbin Institute of Technology, including your institution. As a result, we are unable to process your request at this time. MathWorks continues to monitor this situation and will update you should anything change,” said the MATLAB login rejection message.

The South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported that the two Harbin universities were added to the U.S. Commerce Department’s “entity list” last week and were notified last weekend. Not many students appear to have been notified in advance that they were about to lose access to the software.

According to the Commerce Department, Harbin Institute of Technology was blacklisted because it has attempted to adapt U.S. technology to China’s missile programs, while Harbin Engineering University has acquired other “U.S.-origin items” and tried using them to support “programs for the People’s Liberation Army.”

The Commerce Department said that all entities added to the list “represent a significant risk of supporting procurement of items for military end-use in China.”

Students at the two Chinese universities told the SCMP that losing access to MATLAB would cause them varying degrees of inconvenience. Some described the program as indispensable to their research, while others said they could find suitable alternatives.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry denounced the Commerce Department action as a result of “the deep-rooted Cold War mentality of the U.S.” and its “straightforward political oppression of China.” 

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