Semiconductors: Chips on Their Shoulders
China wants to become a superpower in semiconductors, and plans to spend colossal sums to achieve this
The Chinese government has been trying, on and off, since the 1970s to build an indigenous semiconductor industry. But its ambitions have never been as high, nor its budgets so big, as they are now. In an earlier big push, in the second half of the 1990s, the government spent less than $1 billion, reckons Morgan Stanley, an American bank. This time, under a grand plan announced in 2014, the government will muster $100 billion-$150 billion in public and private funds.
The aim is to catch up technologically with the world’s leading firms by 2030, in the design, fabrication and packaging of chips of all types, so as to cease being dependent on foreign supplies. In 2015 the government added a further target: within ten years it wants to be producing 70% of the chips consumed by Chinese industry.
It has a long way to go. Last year China’s manufacturers, both domestic and foreign-owned, consumed $145 billion-worth of microchips of all kinds (see chart). But the output of China’s domestic chip industry was only one-tenth of that value. And in some types of high-value semiconductor – the processor chips that are the brains of computers, and the rugged and durable chips that are embedded in cars – virtually all of China’s consumption is imported.
To help them achieve their dream, the authorities realise that they must buy as much foreign expertise as they can lay their hands on. In recent months, state-owned firms and various arms of government have been rushing to buy, invest in or do deals with overseas microchip firms. On January 17th the south-western province of Guizhou announced a joint venture with Qualcomm, an American chip designer, to invest around $280m in setting up a new maker of specialist chips for servers. The province’s investment fund will own 55% of the business. Two days earlier, shareholders in Powertech Technology, a Taiwanese firm that packages and tests chips, agreed to let Tsinghua Unigroup, a state-controlled firm from the mainland, buy a 25% stake for $600m.
Officials argue that developing a home-grown semiconductor industry is a strategic imperative, given the country’s excessive reliance on foreign technology. They can point to the taxpayers’ money that politicians in America, Europe and other parts of Asia have lavished on their domestic semiconductor industries over the years.
China’s microchip trade gap is, by some estimates, only around half of what the raw figures suggest, since a sizeable proportion of the imported chips that Chinese factories consume go into gadgets, such as Apple’s iPhones and Lenovo’s laptops, that are then exported. Even so, a policy of promoting semiconductors fits with the government’s broader policy of moving from labour-intensive manufacturing to higher-added-value, cleaner industries.
Morgan Stanley notes that profit margins for successful semiconductor firms are typically 40% or more, whereas the computers, gadgets and other hardware that they go into often have margins of less than 20%. So if Chinese firms designed and made more of the world’s chips, and one day controlled some of the underlying technical standards, as Intel does with personal-computer and server chips, China would enjoy a bigger share of the global electronics industry’s profits.
In the government’s earlier efforts to boost domestic manufacturing of solar panels and LED lamps, it spread its largesse among a lot of local firms, resulting in excess capacity and slumping prices. This time it seems to be concentrating its firepower on a more limited group of national champions. For instance, SMIC of Shanghai is set to be China’s champion “foundry” (bulk manufacturer of chips designed by others). And HiSilicon of Shenzhen (part of Huawei, a maker of telecoms equipment) will be one of a select few champions in chip design.
Most intriguing of all, Tsinghua Unigroup, a company spun out of Tsinghua University in Beijing, has emerged in the past year or so as the chosen champion among champions, a Chinese challenger to the mighty Intel. Zhao Weiguo, the firm’s boss, started out herding goats and pigs in Xinjiang, a remote province in north-western China, to where his parents had been exiled in the 1950s, having been labelled as dissidents. After moving to Beijing to study at the university, Mr. Zhao made a fortune in electronics, property and natural resources, before becoming chairman and second-largest shareholder (after the university itself) at Tsinghua Unigroup.
The company’s emergence from obscurity began in 2013 when it spent $2.6 billion buying two Chinese chip-design firms, Spreadtrum and RDA Microelectronics. In 2014 Intel bought a 20% stake in its putative future rival, for $1.5 billion, as part of a plan for the two to work together on chips for mobile devices, an area in which Intel has lagged behind. In May last year Tsinghua spent $2.3 billion to buy a 51% stake in H3C, a Hong Kong subsidiary of Hewlett-Packard that makes data-networking equipment. And in November it announced a $13 billion share placement to finance the building of a giant memory-chip plant.
Shopping for silicon savvy
Other Chinese firms have also been splashing out. Jiangsu Changjiang, a firm that packages chips, paid $1.8 billion in 2014 to gain control of STATS ChipPac, a Singaporean outfit in the same line of business. In 2015 state-controlled JianGuang Asset Management paid a similar sum for a division of NXP of the Netherlands, which makes specialist chips for cell-phone base stations. A group led by China Resources Holdings, another state enterprise, has made a $2.5 billion takeover bid for Fairchild Semiconductor International, an American firm. But the undisputed leader of the “national team” buying up foreign chip know-how is Tsinghua.
“Many people suspect I’m a ‘white glove’ for the government,” Mr. Zhao declared recently, “but we’re really just a very market-oriented company.” That somewhat understates the official backing that it clearly enjoys: without this, it is hard to imagine the company affording the 300 billion yuan ($45 billion) that Mr. Zhao says Tsinghua plans to spend on further deals over the next five years.
Chinese approaches to foreign semiconductor firms – unlike its firms’ acquisitions of foreign consumer brands – have not always met with a warm reception. Tsinghua reportedly made a $23 billion bid last year for Micron, a big American maker of DRAM – the type of memory chips used to store data on desktop computers and servers. But the bid faltered because of political opposition. The firm’s overtures to SK Hynix, a South Korean maker of DRAM and flash-memory chips (as used in USB sticks and smartphones), were rebuffed in November. In December Tsinghua bought a 25% stake in Siliconware Precision Industries (SPIL), a Taiwanese chip packager and tester. The resulting political backlash prompted Advanced Semiconductor Engineering (ASE), a bigger Taiwanese chip packager, to launch a takeover bid for SPIL in December. Tsai Ing-wen, the main opposition candidate in Taiwan’s presidential election, declared China’s investments in the island’s chip firms a “very big threat” – and on polling day, January 16th, she emerged the victor.
As to whether China will realise its ambitions, or whether it will continue to be dependent on foreign chip technology, Taiwan’s own experience is instructive. From the 1980s, it was highly successful in developing world-class chip foundries, such as TSMC, and in cultivating sparky designers of processor chips such as MediaTek. But in part that was because of good timing: the chip industry was moving towards a model of separating the design and the fabrication of chips, and Taiwan successfully rode that trend. But its more recent attempt to be big in memory chips was a disaster. Mark Li of Sanford C. Bernstein, a research firm, reckons that despite $50 billion in capital expenditure during the late 1990s and 2000s, mostly financed by the government, Taiwanese firms met with “en masse failure in memory.”
These firms lost further fortunes chasing market share. From 2001 to 2010, the global memory-chip business made $8 billion in aggregate profits – but subtract the two successful South Korean makers, Samsung and SK Hynix, and everyone else lost nearly $13 billion. Despite their vast outlays, reckons Mr. Li, Taiwanese firms spent too little to reach the technology frontier and were expecting profits too early.
Douglas Fuller of Zhejiang University in Hangzhou argues that the maturing of the global semiconductor industry in recent years will make it harder still for China to crack. The incumbents in memory chips have become entrenched, especially after recent consolidation; and the chips themselves, with their associated software, are becoming much more complex, making it harder for Chinese firms to master them. ASE’s chief operating officer, Tien Wu, adds that Taiwanese firms were entering the chip market at a time when it was enjoying heady expansion; it will be more difficult for Chinese firms to succeed at a time of slow growth.