China-based US chip experts face stay-go dilemma

Date:

Hundreds of top engineers and executives working for Chinese chip companies are facing a tough decision about whether they should stay in mainland China amid the United States’ sanctions.

They include those who were born in China but hold US passports after finishing their studies and gaining their working experience in America.

Chinese media said many have recently resigned from their positions in China to avoid being affected by the latest US curbs, which banned US persons from working for Chinese semiconductor firms from October 12.

Over the past few years, the US has announced a series of export bans to curb the growth of China’s chip sector. It not only stopped the Netherlands from exporting its extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography equipment to China from early 2020, but also banned US firms from selling high-end chips and chip-making softwares to China from mid-2022.

It was on October 7 that the US Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) unveiled its new round of curbs.

It said US citizens would be forbidden to support the development or production of integrated circuits at certain chip fabs in China without a license from Wednesday.

TechNews, a Taiwanese IT website, reported on Monday that American engineers of KLA Corporation, Lam Research and Tokyo Electron Limited had started leaving Chinese chip fabs over the past weekend.

Besides, a list of senior executives of Chinese chip companies including Shanghai-based Beken Corp and Advanced Micro-Fabrication Equipment China (AMEC) has been circulated on the Internet this week, showing that most of them are holding US passports.

Gerald Yin, the chairman and general manager of AMEC, is among those who have been called out. He quit Intel in 2004 and returned to China to set up his company. In many previous interviews, he told the Chinese media that he was proud to have helped China build its own chip supply chain.

A Guangdong-based columnist wrote in an article on October 13 that the United States’ decision to forbid US persons to work for Chinese chip firms is a powerful move that will force chip experts to give up either their US passports or their careers in China.

He said China is still heavily relying on foreign chips as it imported US$400 billion of semiconductors last year. He said the Chip 4 Alliance, which includes the US, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, still dominates the world’s chip supply chain.

However, he added that China should not give up but should keep opening up its markets and thus attract talent. He said China’s chip sector has kept growing in the past few years despite the US curbs.

Jiang Ping, a columnist at the social media channel of Qinghai Radio and Television Station, wrote in an article in February that when the US-based Micron Technology closed its DRAM chip production lines in Shanghai this year it offered some of its 150 staff, including a dozen Chinese scientists, transfers to the US or India.

Jiang said that, among them, 40 had been offered emigration to the US. He said China must build its own talent pool and try every means to retain engineers and scientists on the mainland.

A Chinese writer surnamed Chen said in April that China had to rely on foreign semiconductors as its chip technology was far lagging behind other places.

Chen said a lot of Chinese people had learned the know-how of chip production but most of them did not return to work on the mainland. He said it was urgent for China to attract those talents to come home and serve the nation.

China Semiconductor Industry Association said in a statement issued on Thursday that the US should stop the newly-announced curbs as they would affect millions of chip workers in China.

The association said it was disappointed to see the curbs unveiled by the Commerce Department and it did not agree to a measure “abruptly disturbing the international trade in such an arbitrary way.”

It said that, for the well-being of the global semiconductor industry, the US government should adjust its course of action and return to the well-established framework of the World Semiconductor Council and the Government and Authority Meeting on Semiconductor (GAMS).

Read: New US chip ban takes tech war to dire next level

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3

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