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US AI semiconductor export ban triggers graphic card frenzy in China

The latest restrictions imposed by the United States on the export of artificial intelligence (AI) semiconductors to mainland China have turned graphic cards into some of the most sought-after items in Huaqiangbei, the world’s biggest wholesale electronics marketplace.

“The demand for high-end graphic cards remains very robust, especially after the export curbs imposed by the US government,” said Cai Zhaojie, a vendor at Huaqiangbei in the Futian district of tech hub Shenzhen, southern Guangdong province.

The Biden administration last Friday revised sweeping export controls it implemented last October, making it harder for the mainland to have access to advanced AI processors, semiconductor-manufacturing equipment and even laptop computers built with those chips, according to a Reuters report. The revised rules will take effect on April 4.

“After news of the latest US restrictions broke, all merchants started stocking up on various AI-related goods they could get, and are now waiting to sell these at a high price,” Cai said on Monday.

That has made Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 4090, a top-shelf device used by video gamers and graphics designers to crank up computing performance, the most-coveted graphics card in the market.

Efforts by Huaqiangbei merchants to amass a stockpile of RTX 4090 graphics cards show the far-reaching impact of Washington’s latest chip export restrictions, which further reinforce the initial measures announced by the Biden administration in October 2022.

An update to the 2022 restrictions, announced in October last year, sought to close loopholes in the previous curbs and prevent China’s development of AI for military use, according to US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.

Beijing said it opposes the revised controls announced last Friday, slamming the US government for arbitrarily changing rules and damaging the rights of both Chinese and American companies.

“It has not only set up more obstacles for Chinese and US companies to carry out normal economic and trade cooperation, while imposing a heavier burden of compliance, but also causes harm to the global semiconductor industry,” a representative of China’s Ministry of Commerce said on Sunday.

Certain versions of the RTX 4090 are available at around 20,000 yuan (US$2,768), over 70 per cent higher than Nvidia’s recommended retail price. Cai, who sells graphics cards and personal computers, said some versions of the RTX 4090 cost about 16,000 yuan.

On e-commerce platform, prices for the RTX 4090 range from 16,999 yuan to 19,999 yuan.

In China, the RTX 4090 has also been used to help run so-called perceptual functions on self-driving vehicles, according to an engineer at Autra Technology, a developer of Level-4 autonomous trucks that can operate without a driver’s active intervention.

Demand and prices for the RTX 4090 graphics cards initially surged last October, when Washington’s updated chip export restrictions sparked a panic across the mainland’s consumer market.

Nvidia, the world’s most valuable semiconductor company, removed its inventory of RTX 4090 graphics cards from its official store on Chinese shopping platform at the time and later from its official mainland website.

Washington has continued to roll out new policies to hinder China’s tech advances, especially in the semiconductor sector. The US has also asked its allies to stop their companies from servicing certain chip-making equipment for Chinese customers, according to a Reuters report last week. South China Morning Post

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