China's Semiconductor Race: Strategic Triumph or Potential Pitfall?

21-11-2023 | By Robin Mitchell

In the high-stakes game of global tech dominance, China's ambitious quest for semiconductor sovereignty is a move watched with bated breath by the world. This pursuit, driven by a blend of national pride and strategic necessity, is reshaping the global semiconductor landscape. But beneath the surface of this technological leap forward lies a complex web of challenges and paradoxes. 

How is China navigating the treacherous path towards semiconductor independence, and at what cost? Could this rapid ascent in the semiconductor realm be a double-edged sword, potentially leading to self-inflicted setbacks? And most importantly, what ripple effects might this have on the global stage?

Navigating the Roadblocks to China's Semiconductor Self-Sufficiency

Regardless of which side of the fence one sits on, it cannot be argued that China has faced all kinds of challenges in its mission to reach semiconductor independence. After the numerous trade restrictions placed on China by the West, China has had virtually no access to the latest technologies, including chips manufactured in the West and fabrication facilities capable of making such devices. 

Innovative Strides in Microchip Development 

Because of these numerous restrictions, China has invested heavily in its semiconductor sector to try and find ways to develop its own microchips and surrounding technologies. For example, the advances in RISC-V have proven to be massively beneficial to China as it can design its own processors that are fully compatible with the numerous software solutions being developed for the open-source processor instruction set. 

Resilience and Growth of China's Semiconductor Industry:

  • Growth Rate: In 2023, the Chinese IC (integrated circuit) design sector experienced an 8% growth rate.
  • Overcoming Trade Restrictions: This growth demonstrates China's determination to overcome international trade barriers.
  • Expansion in IC Design Companies:
    • New Additions: 208 new IC design companies were added in 2023.
    • Total Companies: The total number of IC design companies rose to 3,541, up from 3,243 in 2022.
  • Commitment to Semiconductor Sovereignty: This expansion underscores China's steadfast commitment to achieving semiconductor independence.

In summary, the trajectory of China's semiconductor industry is a clear indicator of the nation's strategic commitment to technological self-reliance. The impressive growth rate, alongside the substantial increase in the number of IC design companies, reflects not just an economic achievement but also a significant step towards overcoming global trade challenges. However, this rapid expansion also brings to light the complexities and potential risks associated with such an ambitious drive towards semiconductor sovereignty. As China continues to navigate these waters, the global semiconductor landscape watches closely, recognising the far-reaching implications of China's endeavours in this high-stakes technological arena.

Technological Triumphs and Trials 

Another example of how investments being made by the Chinese government have helped China’s mission to become independent can be seen in Huawei’s latest device, the Mate Pro 60. The onboard processor and RF front end have been found to use 7nm technology, something which should have been impossible for China to produce. By utilising older ASML systems, which were not designed to develop 7nm devices, Chinese researchers were able to develop a production method capable of yielding such nodes.

However, this path towards semiconductor sovereignty has not been without its challenges. Going back to the Huawei example, while 7nm devices have been manufactured, the cost to develop such devices has been suspected as being extremely high due to low yields. As such, it may be hard for China to scale such technology offerings, thus limiting their use and capabilities.

The simple answer to this issue is for China to obtain the latest ASML offerings, and while it certainly has the money to do so, numerous restrictions by the West prevent ASML from shipping such units. Considering that ASML is the only company currently able to provide lithographic systems for next-generation semiconductors, China has no alternative solutions for producing sub 7nm devices.

Navigating Funding Challenges and Corruption 

At the same time, China has also suffered from issues with corruption. To help kickstart the semiconductor race in China, the Chinese government launched a substantial $40bn fund to help foundries and start-ups produce next-generation technologies

However, just like any government-led and funded project, corruption quickly set in, with numerous executives syphoning fund money for personal gains. While thorough investigations have led to a number of crackdowns on fraud, they have still caused significant damage to China’s goal of semiconductor sovereignty. In fact, it was reported that even the head of the fund itself was found to be committing fraud, something that shows the incompetence of the Chinese government and its ability to organise large projects (however, this is true for most government-led projects).

Confronting International Trade and Security Concerns 

Finally, not only is China suffering from issues with sourcing equipment and seeing funds properly used, but some devices manufactured in China are being banned for use in the West. While this may not apply to smaller devices (e.g., microcontrollers), larger systems (e.g., cellular systems) are being actively removed from Western infrastructure in fear of national security vulnerabilities and, as such, limiting the ability of Chinese businesses to raise funds.

The scale of China's semiconductor industry expansion is significant. In 2023, the industry's total revenue is expected to reach 557.4 billion yuan (US$76.8 billion), demonstrating not just growth in numbers but also in economic impact. This surge in revenue and company numbers, however, raises questions about the sustainability of such rapid expansion and the potential 

The Risks of Rapid Expansion in China's Semiconductor Industry

However, this growth narrative is not without its caveats. Wei Shaojun, a leading figure in China's semiconductor industry, has raised concerns about the sustainability of this rapid expansion. According to Shaojun, the industry is facing significant financial challenges due to overcrowding, with many new enterprises struggling to stay afloat. This overcrowding is a direct consequence of the aggressive push for self-sufficiency, leading to a market saturated with companies but lacking in high-end technological breakthroughs. Shaojun's insights underscore the risks associated with China's accelerated path towards semiconductor independence, highlighting the potential for domestic products to be perceived as inferior if they hastily replace foreign semiconductors.

The 'semiconductor industry growth in China' has been remarkable, reflecting the nation's relentless drive towards 'China's semiconductor self-sufficiency'. This growth, however, is not without its challenges, as it navigates through the complexities of global trade restrictions and technological advancements. The 'global impact of China's semiconductor strategy' extends far beyond its national borders, influencing international trade policies, global supply chains, and the worldwide semiconductor market dynamics. 

But for all the advances that China has made, there are those who believe China may be accelerating far too fast, effectively creating a semiconductor bubble that may one day burst. A recent report published by the South China Morning Post has revealed that although there is growth in the Chinese semiconductor industry, large numbers of semiconductor companies could be in the red by the end of 2023. 

The Balancing Act: Growth Versus Quality Concerns 

Simply put, the rapid acceleration of businesses combined with the inability to target foreign markets (as a result of trade restrictions) may be leading to countless semiconductors whose services and products cannot be moved quickly enough. Making matters worse, there is a belief that if China replaces too many foreign semiconductors in domestically produced products, then they may be considered inferior and, therefore, of low quality.

The result of all these factors is that the Chinese semiconductor industry could see a major shock, with hundreds of companies going bankrupt and the image of Chinese-developed products being tarnished in the long run. If the semiconductor market should experience a significant economic shock, it could even result in investors pulling out of Chinese semiconductor businesses and, therefore, trigger panic amongst shareholders.

Adding to these concerns, Shaojun points out the impact of recent US export restrictions on semiconductor equipment and advanced AI chips. These restrictions are likely to hinder China's development of computing power necessary for supercomputers and advanced AI systems. Despite these challenges, the Pearl River Delta region, particularly Shenzhen, has seen the highest industry expansion rate, contributing significantly to the overall growth. Yet, this growth comes with the caveat that many of these new companies are not in a healthy financial state, as per Shaojun's analysis, indicating a potential bubble in the making.

Global Implications of China's Semiconductor Ambitions

Should the Chinese semiconductor market undergo serious turmoil, its impact on the world will not be easy to calculate. On one hand, device manufacturers that utilise mostly Western parts would see little impact as they are not dependent on Chinese semiconductors, even if they manufacture their devices in China. 

Moreover, the regional contributions to China's semiconductor growth present a mixed picture. While cities like Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Beijing are leading in terms of industry size, the rapid addition of new companies, particularly in the Pearl River Delta region, raises questions about the long-term viability of this expansion. Shaojun's commentary suggests that while there is notable growth, the industry's overall health is precarious, with many companies potentially facing financial difficulties. This scenario could lead to a significant reshuffling of the semiconductor landscape in China, affecting not just the companies involved but also the global semiconductor supply chain.

On the other hand, should the market shock be sufficient enough, it could cause the Chinese economy on the whole to suffer and, therefore, affect the ability of the West to use China as a manufacturing hub. Considering that economies are extremely complex networks of interdependencies between sectors and businesses, any upset in the supply chain in China could see other markets equally suffer, such as raw material providers, IP developers, and even device manufacturers.

Furthermore, should the Chinese semiconductor market see a large downfall, it could spur another chip shortage as Chinese device manufacturers turn to the West for parts. This could then result in a rise in the price of electronics for the world in general, just like how the COVID-19 pandemic triggered numerous issues with the semiconductor market. 

There is no way of telling what will happen should the Chinese semiconductor market suffer from significant losses, but generally speaking, nothing good ever comes from struggling markets. Does this mean we should start stockpiling Western parts? Should we ban China from placing massive orders with Western suppliers? Who knows, but one must never lose sight that should China’s industry collapse, the West will certainly see some consequences of it.

Broader Implications and Global Parallels in Semiconductor Strategies

As we delve into the broader implications of China's ambitious drive towards semiconductor self-sufficiency, it becomes crucial to place these efforts in a global context. The semiconductor industry, a cornerstone of modern technology, has become a focal point for nations worldwide, each striving to secure their place in this highly competitive and strategically important field. This comparative analysis will not only highlight the unique aspects of China's approach but also shed light on how other global players are navigating similar challenges. By understanding these global efforts, we can better appreciate the complexities and nuances of the semiconductor industry's role in international relations and economic development.

Comparative Analysis with Global Efforts

While China's aggressive push towards semiconductor self-sufficiency is notable, it is not unique in the global context. Countries like the United States, South Korea, and Taiwan have also been intensifying their efforts in semiconductor production, driven by similar motivations of economic security and technological leadership. For instance, the United States has been actively working to revitalise its domestic semiconductor manufacturing capabilities, as evidenced by significant investments in companies like Intel and the implementation of policies aimed at reducing dependence on foreign chipmakers.

Lessons from South Korea and Taiwan

South Korea and Taiwan offer interesting parallels. Both countries have successfully established themselves as global leaders in semiconductor manufacturing, with companies like Samsung and TSMC dominating the market. Their strategies have been characterised by heavy investments in research and development, close collaboration between government and industry, and a focus on specialisation in certain segments of the semiconductor supply chain. China could potentially learn from these models, particularly in terms of fostering innovation and ensuring quality in a rapidly expanding market.

Global Supply Chain Dynamics

China's semiconductor ambitions have significant implications for the global supply chain. The country's push for self-sufficiency could lead to a more diversified global supply chain, reducing the current over-reliance on specific regions. However, this diversification also comes with challenges, such as potential disruptions in the supply chain and increased competition. Moreover, if China's semiconductor industry faces a downturn, it could lead to a global ripple effect, impacting not only the semiconductor market but also various industries reliant on these components.

Economic and Political Considerations

The semiconductor industry is not just about technology; it's also deeply intertwined with global economic and political dynamics. The US-China trade tensions have underscored the strategic importance of semiconductors as a key element in national security and economic competitiveness. This has led to a geopolitical balancing act, where countries are increasingly aware of the need to secure their semiconductor supply chains against potential political and economic disruptions.

Looking ahead, the semiconductor industry is likely to remain a critical battleground for technological and economic supremacy. Nations will continue to invest heavily in this sector, not only to ensure their technological independence but also to maintain a competitive edge in the global market. For China, balancing rapid growth with sustainable development, quality control, and international collaboration will be key to its long-term success in this arena.


By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.