China will speed its efforts to build talent and win the battle to develop homegrown tech, Xi Jinping pledged.
China will speed its efforts to build a legion of talent and win the battle to develop homegrown technologies, President Xi Jinping pledged at the Communist Party’s twice-a-decade congress on Sunday. But new US restrictions issued a week earlier are already undercutting those plans.
The Biden administration’s latest salvo of sanctions includes restrictions on so-called US persons supporting the development, production or use of integrated circuits at some chip plants located in China. Effective Oct. 12, the measures are broad enough to encompass holders of US green cards as well as US residents and American citizens, capturing a wide swath of senior executives at Chinese semiconductor firms.
The country will “attract the best minds from all areas to the cause of the Party and the people,” Xi said, reiterating the need to strengthen international talent exchange. Senior Chinese officials have repeatedly sought to assure overseas researchers that China is a better place for their work. Beijing pledged to beef up its push to lure talent back to China despite tight Covid-19 restrictions that have mostly sealed the country off from the rest of the world.
Foreign-born designers and engineers, along with Chinese people with foreign passports or residency, have long played an instrumental role in the nation’s technological development. In consumer electronics, Huawei Technologies Co. accelerated its efforts to catch up to the iPhone by hiring a former Apple Inc. creative director, Abigail Brody, as its chief designer in 2015. The company also recruited internationally to build up its in-house chip and audio engineering and 5G wireless technology.
Six of the seven key research and development executives of China’s leading semiconductor equipment maker Piotech Inc. are American citizens, per its Star Markets filing in early 2022. Many of Piotech’s top management, including its chairman and general manager, are also Americans.
Source: Tianyancha, company filings; Company representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
Previously, US measures to rein in China’s ascent have focused on a particular technology — such as banning Huawei from accessing advanced chipmaking by the likes of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. — but the new personnel restriction will hurt by depriving China of a deep pool of experience obtained in the US.
“The control on ‘US person’ is the biggest surprise to us from the announcement,” Bernstein analysts including Stacy Rasgon wrote in response to Washington’s move. “Some Chinese companies have been progressing better, often thanks to founding members or executives bringing their experience from years of working in the US. Many of them hence are US citizens or green card holders.”
Anyone falling under the classification will require a license to continue working in China or in support of chipmakers there, with a heavy burden of proof to show that their work wouldn’t go toward military end uses. Given the variety of applications for any given semiconductor, that makes it challenging for US persons to demonstrate they wouldn’t be aiding China’s military, Bernstein said.
What Bloomberg Intelligence Says
Chinese companies still concentrate on the assembly and testing segments of the industry’s global supply chain, missing out from the 90% of total chain value that’s in the design and manufacturing segments dominated by the US. Non-tariff barriers are the largest obstacle to the rise of the Chinese semiconductor industry.
— Clelia Imperiali, BI analyst
Companies like Dutch chip equipment maker ASML Holding NV have now prohibited American staff from supporting Chinese customers, dashing hopes in Beijing that international chip industry players would remain neutral. Meanwhile, Beijing-based semiconductor equipment maker Naura Technology Group Co. has told its US employees in China to withdraw from component and machinery development to comply with Washington’s restrictions, South China Morning Post reported.
“We scoped our measures narrowly,” US Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Export Administration Thea D. Rozman Kendler told an audience on a public call on Thursday. “That ensures that our actions will have the least possible impact on commercial activity and not cause disruptions to the global supply.
Citi analysts said in a note about the new set of US rules this week that Naura and fellow domestic chipmaking gear provider Advanced Micro-Fabrication Equipment Inc. “both believe that even though it applies to their staffs with US citizenship or Green Cards, those staffs should still be allowed to participate in the development or production of mature-node ICs.”
Still, the US curbs are a roadblock for China’s bid to achieve technological self-sufficiency. The measures not only cut the country’s access to advanced chips used in supercomputers and artificial intelligence research, such as those provided by Nvidia Corp., but also impede the arrival of researchers and engineers capable of designing such systems within its borders.