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China’s flagship CPU designer puts on a brave face amid US sanctions

A Chinese chip designer, whose mission has been to reduce the country’s reliance on Intel and AMD, is trying to develop its own general-purpose graphic processing unit (GPU) despite being added to a US trade blacklist.

Loongson Technology Corp, whose founder Hu Weiwu used to cite Mao Zedong to express his aspirations, is evaluating the advanced 7-nanometre process from a number of foundries to manufacture its future chips, according to a response from the company this week to investor questions.

The new chips would include GPUs like those supplied by industry leader Nvidia, which is now restricted from selling its high-end chips to Chinese customers, and central processing units (CPUs), which is a market long-dominated by Intel and AMD.

The Loongson comments come a week after the Beijing-based chip designer, whose Chinese name translates to “dragon chips”, was added by the US Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) to the Entity List, along with 26 other mainland entities. US exporters must apply for special permits from Washington to sell products to companies on the list.

For Shanghai-listed Loongson, however, its stated mission has always been reducing China’s reliance on US technologies. As investors flooded the official inquiry platform run by the Shanghai Stock Exchange with questions on its product development and the impact of US sanctions, Loongson said the latest restrictions will not have any “material impact”, according to publicly-available records.

The US sanctions on Loongson are less extensive than what the US imposed on Chinese telecoms giant Huawei Technologies Co, but the chip designer’s efforts to procure foundry services could be undermined if US-origin technologies are used in the manufacturing processes, analysts said.

“If a fabless company has no access to the best process nodes, why bother designing cutting edge chips,” said Stewart Randall, head of electronics and embedded software at consultancy Intralink.

Loongson launched its home-grown 3A5000 central processing unit (CPU) at the end of 2020, which was made on a now-restricted process node of 14-nm, according to its prospectus for a Shanghai initial public offering last year, in which it raised 2.46 billion yuan (US$357 million).

From 2019 to 2021, the company procured over half of its chip manufacturing from an unnamed foundry code-named BP00, its prospectus showed. Loongson warned at the time that its foundry supply could be disrupted due to “radical changes” in the global geopolitical landscape.

In China, the only foundry capable of producing 14-nm chips is Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp (SMIC). SMIC was reportedly able to produce a 7-nm chip last year, but the Shanghai-based company has never officially denied or admitted to the breakthrough.

The Chinese semiconductor industry is betting that more support is on its way, after the central government pledged to mobilise more resources to further support the development of technologies seen crucial amid intensifying US-China tech rivalry.

As part of a broader reform plan , Beijing sanctioned an overhaul of the Ministry of Science and Technology during the country’s annual political gatherings which concluded earlier this week. The restructuring will strip some mandates from the ministry and force it to be laser focused on turning scientific research into technologies for industry production, Sun Yutao, a economics professor at Dalian University of Technology, was quoted as saying by Chinese media Caixin.

However, chip sector insiders said the foreign reliance, especially on advanced tools and high-end materials, was hard to reduce in the short term.

Loongson originated in 2001 as a research team under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the country’s apex of scientific and technological research. It was spun out as a separate entity in 2010 to commercialise its chip development research.

The business runs itself as a so-called fabless company, which mainly provides CPUs, its own chip-based servers and an instruction set architecture (ISA) known as Loongson Architecture (LoongArch), based on the reduced instruction set computer (RISC) principles which govern the basic computing rules of a CPU.

Loongson licensed technologies from US-based MIPS Computer Systems in 2011 and 2017, enabling it to develop, produce and sell chips based on the MIPS instruction set architecture. MIPS ISA-based chips accounted for 70 per cent of Loongson’s total sales from 2019 to 2021, according to its prospectus.

It suspended the renewal of the MIPS licence agreement in April 2020 due to an intellectual property dispute with a Shanghai-based semiconductor IP company called CIP United.

CIP United took Loongson to court, alleging that both LoongArch and the 3A5000 CPU infringed on its copyright after CIP United acquired an IP portfolio from MIPS. The lawsuits, involving 60 million yuan, are still being processed in a Beijing civil court, according to a Loongson stock filing in March.

Loongsoon has pivoted to its Loongson Architecture in the development of its next-generation CPUs, labelled the 3A6000 and 3A7000. The company said its architecture is compatible with Intel’s proprietary X86 architecture, Arm’s instruction set, and the open-sourced RISC-V, which has seen growing interest among Chinese firms amid ongoing US-China tensions.

The company said it aims to build an “independent ecosystem” with its Loongson Architecture, Loongnix operating system, CPUs and IP to compete with the dominant Arm-Google Android and Intel-Microsoft ecosystems, according to its prospectus. South China Morning Post

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