The sole semiconductor industry delegate at the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party is advocating for the development of the country’s own industrial information technology (IT) system, independent from the widely adopted Intel-Windows and Android-Arm structures, as tensions intensify between Beijing and Washington.
“If China doesn’t have its own industrial IT system, it’s like farming on other people’s land. We don’t have control,” said Hu Weiwu, the founder, chairman and president of chip design firm Loongson Technology Corp, in a report published earlier this week by the Communist Party-owned daily newspaper The Beijing News.
Hu, 54, is one of the 2,296 delegates at the twice-a-decade Communist Party congress, which started last Sunday and will conclude this Saturday. His bona fides include previously serving as chief engineer of the Institute of Computing Technology, which is under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), and designing the country’s first central processing unit (CPU) as early as 2002.
The semiconductor sector delegate’s push for a home-grown industrial IT system – covering networks of machines, operating platforms and applications – echoes President Xi Jinping’s focus on “greater self-reliance and strength in science and technology” in the work report he delivered at the opening of the 20th party congress.
This clarion call for technology self-reliance reflects the heightened sense of urgency in China after Washington’s recent moves to expand the scope of US hi-tech export controls targeted at chip makers on the mainland, which followed the Biden administration’s enactment of the Chips and Science Act in August.
The controls include rules that “restrict the ability of US persons to support the development or production” of chips at “certain China-located semiconductor fabrication ‘facilities’ without a licence”.
Hu, according to The Beijing News report, indicated that use of mainland-designed chips like those from Loongson have increased in recent years because of China’s tech self-sufficiency drive.
Still, he said the process of developing a home-grown industrial IT system will take time and patience. As such, he compared CPU development to raising children.
“Some products are like raising pigs, and they can be sold in one year. Some products are like raising cattle, and they can work in the fields after raising them for three years,” Hu said. “But some products are like raising children. Building CPUs is like raising a child. It takes 30 years to see a child make real achievements.”
On accelerating the development of more IT talent in China, Hu said the problem is that most universities teach students how to use computers, not how to build them.
There is already a mad scramble for talent in China’s semiconductor industry. This sector is predicted to have a talent gap of 200,000 people in the 2022-2023 period, as industry-wide demand for skilled personnel soars to 760,000, according to a recent report from the China Semiconductor Industry Association.
It is an issue that Hu has become familiar with, as he leads Loongson’s development of general-purpose processors, which serve as the basic component of IT systems.
A member of the Chinese Communist Party since he turned 18, Hu credited the state-backed Beijing Industrial Development Investment Management Co for initially injecting 100 million yuan (US$14 million) in capital to support Loongson’s business, according to a report in July by China Science Daily, a CAS-affiliated newspaper.
Before that, Hu said Loongson, which he founded in 2010, had difficulty raising funds. “I was like Don Quixote, holding a long lance named Loongson, tilting at two windmills, Intel and Arm”, he said.
“It was only in China where the company obtained generous support” when it was not making much money, Hu said in the report. He said other financiers, both state-owned and private, provided more funding over the years.
Loongson, which went public in June on Shanghai’s Nasdaq-like Science and Technology Innovation Board, saw its first-half net profit decline 1.6 per cent year on year and revenue fall 38 per cent amid weak demand, supply chain disruptions and the country’s faltering economy. SCMP