Preparation will boost China’s chip progress

By Zhang Lili Source:Global Times Published: 2018/5/1 21:53:40

Illustration: Xia Qing/GT


Following the ZTE incident, China has basically reached a consensus to develop its own chip technology. However, making semiconductors is very complicated, involving more than 50 industries and 2,000 to 5,000 processes. Some observers have said that mere enthusiasm alone won't lead to success and China may not achieve chip breakthroughs on its own.

But other countries such as Japan and South Korea have overcome tremendous technical difficulties. By drawing on the experience of these pioneers and flexibly utilizing our own strengths, given China's economic development level, we have every reason to believe that China can also achieve significant developments in chip technology.

For example, we can learn from South Korea in the integration of international technologies and entrepreneurship. The rise of South Korea's chip sector was closely related to the success of Samsung. Samsung's research and development (R&D) began in the early 1980s and took almost 15 years to reach the advanced world level in the mid- to late 1990s. Japan claimed that South Korea could by no means surpass Japan even in 15 years, but in reality South Korea overtook Japan in less than 10 years.

South Korea drew inspiration from other advanced countries. South Korea went to Japan and the US to learn and acquire technology, and it then independently developed technology based on what it had learned. The mastery of core technologies allowed South Korean chips to dominate the world. The entrepreneurial spirit of the Koreans in that generation, represented by Samsung founder Lee Byung-chull, also deserves our respect. At that time, South Korean entrepreneurs were determined to surpass Japan. They abandoned the pursuit of short-term interests, invested whatever the cost, actively cooperated with the government in the development of new technologies, persuaded the government to further increase support and strove for development opportunities. This is also an important reason why South Korean chip producers are highly resilient.

China can learn more advanced technologies from more countries, such as the US, Japan and Israel. We can also exchange ideas with countries that are interested in chip technology to add Chinese characteristics to chip products. Chinese entrepreneurs can also learn from the spirit of South Korean entrepreneurs and assume the responsibilities of the era, strengthening cooperation with the government to help China achieve its goal of chip autonomy at an early date.

The development path of Japan's university-industry collaboration has great significance for us. In the early 1970s, Japan's semiconductor industry was more than 10 years behind the US. In the mid-1970s, the semiconductor industry in Japan was forced to open its markets to the US and was threatened by the emergence of IBM's new technologies.

In response, Japan began the so-called Very Large Scale Integrated (VLSI) project. This was an important case of university-industry collaboration. It was led by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry and it drew on the combined resources of Hitachi, Mitsubishi, Fujitsu, Toshiba and Nippon Electric, plus talent from the national electrical technology institutions.

More than 1,000 patents were acquired during the four-year project, and Japan's technological competence in microelectronics drew neck-and-neck with the US.

China can assemble a similar group with large technology companies such as Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, computer science departments of major universities and other integrated circuit research institutes. We can concentrate the strengths of computer companies that usually compete with each other and institutions that usually only focus on scientific research. We can combine production with research, to make centralized attempts.

Compared with Japan and South Korea, it is much more difficult for China to learn technology from the US. High technology is the core competitiveness of the US, but with China's development getting more attention in recent years, the US fears losing its advantages and may adopt stricter measures against China. We need to prepare mentally for this.

The semiconductor industry, like most sectors, shows a cyclical pattern of development. In the early 1990s, semiconductors were in a downturn. Japan was pessimistic about the future of the industry and thus reduced investment, while South Korea kept investing during the downturn and reaped a harvest during the rebound.

Therefore, while we are immersed in researching the technology, we should also observe the development cycle of the global chip industry objectively to find a strategy that meets the needs of the nation and the world economy.

The author is a research fellow with a think tank Pangoal.


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