China’s plan to leapfrog foreign chipmakers: Wave goodbye to silicon

Moore's Law could soon be a dead letter. That's fine by Beijing.

A chip in a hand

The idea that dominant chip makers — who are overwhelmingly foreign — face a near-certain obstacle has become a beacon of hope for Chinese firms, which analysts say lag at least one to two wafer generations behind their competitors.

Image: Niek Doup / Protocol

A new concept is on the lips of everyone in China's semiconductor industry: the "Post-Moore's Law Era." It's a term that conveys not frustration, but rather hope for China's ability to someday surpass the West's indigenous chip capacity.

Since its initial mention by Chinese Vice Premier Liu He at a meeting on innovation in digital electronics in May, it has been quoted with regularity by Chinese academics, municipal governments, industry journals, private companies and other observers concerned with China's lackluster standing in the global chip sector.

The idea is simple: By 2025, scientists believe, advances in chip technology will no longer keep up with Moore's Law. Coined by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, the rule states that transistors per unit area double every one to two years. While Moore's prediction has so far proven accurate during an era of dramatic improvements in chip performance, in the future engineers expect to hit the physical limits of existing chip materials, such as silicon. That will result in a drop-off in chip technology advancements unless alternatives are devised.

The idea that dominant chip makers — who are overwhelmingly foreign — face a near-certain obstacle has become a beacon of hope for Chinese firms, which analysts say lag at least one to two wafer generations behind their competitors. For example, research conducted by the U.S.-based think tank Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) suggests that, in logic chips, Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC), China's largest chipmaker, manages scale production at the 14nm level, whereas South Korean Samsung and Taiwan-based TSMC are able to accomplish 5nm. On the memory chip side, U.S.-based Micron and Samsung lead with 10nm wafers, while China's best, Changxin Memory Technologies, only manages 19nm.

To pin down the next fundamental semiconductor material, whatever that may be, could give Chinese firms a shortcut to competitiveness or even allow them to leapfrog foreign competitors.

To this end, Beijing has announced it will research alternative substances to help its advanced chip technology drive.

In August, China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology unveiled plans to include "carbon-based materials" in its plan to achieve "breakthrough" technologies. Namely, the ministry will incorporate carbon fiber, graphene, silicon carbide and other carbon-based composites into the country's 14th Five-Year Plan's raw materials development strategy as well as its 14th FYP's scientific innovation strategy.

It marks China's highest-level backing of this research to date, after various industry observers, including the MIIT's own affiliated technology journal, discussed the possibilities such materials presented in a series of articles exploring the "Post-Moore's Law Era."

"We need more breakthroughs in theoretical research, especially in the fields of compound semiconductor and material science, which are led by the U.S. and Japan," Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei said during a private speech at an August innovation summit.

"If we pursue only what's practical, we may forever lag behind," Ren said.

Not tried and true

Even with support from the central government, there's no guarantee China will pull ahead in semiconductors. For one, pursuing unproven technologies would mark a drastic new business model for China's wafer companies, for whom R&D has not traditionally been a priority.

For one, the country continues to throw money at manufacturing over design. During its first phase spanning 2014 to 2019, the giant, state-led National Integrated Circuit Industry Investment Fund, which raised a total of RMB 138.7 billion (USD $21.7 billion), spent two-thirds of its invested funds on fabrication companies. According to German think tank Stiftung Neue Verantwortung, as of mid-2020, less than 1% of the fund's investments were made in domestic electronic design automation (EDA), software tools used to draw up new chips.

Similarly, according to ITIF, R&D at Chinese semiconductor companies accounted for just over 8% of sales in 2018, in contrast with U.S. firms' 18%, EU companies' 14% and Taiwanese firms' 10%. Likewise, Chinese companies held just over 6% of the semiconductor patents granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office in 2018, a fraction of those granted to firms based in the U.S., Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, with 29%, 23%, 17% and 14% respectively.

"If you're getting 40% of your revenues, as SMIC is, from the Chinese government, then you have a source of income that isn't as reliant or dependent upon you innovating the next generation of products," ITIF Vice President of Global Innovation Policy Stephen Ezell said during an online seminar in July.

Yangyang Cheng, a postdoctoral fellow at Yale Law School who researches the history of science in China, echoed this sentiment. "This kind of hardware development takes a very long time," she told Protocol.

Making reference to China's history of persecuting scientists and intellectuals, especially under Mao Zedong's rule, Cheng said that the country has hamstrung its own progress relative to those that never stopped chasing tech advancements.

"If there's a few decades being lost because of political campaigns or different kinds of strategies, then this is time that will be paid for later," she said.

What's more, Cheng said, the emphasis on speed disincentivizes unglamorous fundamental research in favor of sensational claims, such as in the case of a distinguished, young Chinese computer scientist who declared he had created one of the country's first microchips in 2003, later discovered to be based on a design by Motorola.

"These seem like isolated incidents, but … [they] speak to some systemic issues and play into the current state where China does lag behind," Cheng said.

Separation anxiety

To be sure, China continues to court foreign companies despite the decoupling rhetoric, export restrictions and scrutiny in merger and acquisition attempts from a growing number of Western governments, calling into question the vehemence of the new R&D push.

Data from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce shows that, in 2020, China's overseas tech investments jumped. According to its September report on last year's outbound foreign direct investments, spending on information transmission, software and IT service industries grew 67.7% year-over-year to $9.19 billion, while investments in overseas scientific research and technical service industries also grew 8.7% YOY, to $3.73 billion.

At home, meanwhile, the MOC is pressing foreign companies, including Intel, Germany's Infineon, French-Italian STMicroelectronics, U.S. chip industry association SEMI and others on cross-border collaboration. Items on its wishlist include core IP, tech transfers, EDA, packaging, production, training and more.

These kinds of partnerships, along with trends such as talent acquisition from foreign firms, universities and Silicon Valley remain gray areas where governments are slow to respond, according to Dylan Patel, chief analyst at SemiAnalysis, who characterized some of these efforts as "poaching."

However, given the high precision required of semiconductors, making disruption by carbon materials potentially "10 years away forever," the battle for the foreseeable future will remain in the realm of existing chip technologies that are not exclusive to the most advanced companies, he said.

"The majority of chips made are not bleeding edge, so you can eat that value chain and move up," Patel said, citing China's continued appetite for chip manufacturing. "For China it's very important to transition from the current [industrial society] to services, to an industrial powerhouse. This sort of transition needs to happen or the economy will stagnate, so these sorts of investments need to be made."


The minerals we need to save the planet are getting way too expensive

Supply chain problems and rising demand have sent prices spiraling upward for the minerals and metals essential for the clean energy transition.

Critical mineral prices have exploded over the past year.

Photo: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The newest source of the alarm bells echoing throughout the renewables industry? Spiking critical mineral and metal prices.

According to a new report from the International Energy Agency, a maelstrom of rising demand and tattered supply chains have caused prices for the materials needed for clean energy technologies to soar in the last year. And this increase has only accelerated since 2022 began.

Keep Reading Show less
Lisa Martine Jenkins

Lisa Martine Jenkins is a senior reporter at Protocol covering climate. Lisa previously wrote for Morning Consult, Chemical Watch and the Associated Press. Lisa is currently based in Brooklyn, and is originally from the Bay Area. Find her on Twitter ( @l_m_j_) or reach out via email (

Sponsored Content

Why the digital transformation of industries is creating a more sustainable future

Qualcomm’s chief sustainability officer Angela Baker on how companies can view going “digital” as a way not only toward growth, as laid out in a recent report, but also toward establishing and meeting environmental, social and governance goals.

Three letters dominate business practice at present: ESG, or environmental, social and governance goals. The number of mentions of the environment in financial earnings has doubled in the last five years, according to GlobalData: 600,000 companies mentioned the term in their annual or quarterly results last year.

But meeting those ESG goals can be a challenge — one that businesses can’t and shouldn’t take lightly. Ahead of an exclusive fireside chat at Davos, Angela Baker, chief sustainability officer at Qualcomm, sat down with Protocol to speak about how best to achieve those targets and how Qualcomm thinks about its own sustainability strategy, net zero commitment, other ESG targets and more.

Keep Reading Show less
Chris Stokel-Walker

Chris Stokel-Walker is a freelance technology and culture journalist and author of "YouTubers: How YouTube Shook Up TV and Created a New Generation of Stars." His work has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian and Wired.


The 911 system is outdated. Updating it to the cloud is risky.

Unlike tech companies, emergency services departments can’t afford to make mistakes when migrating to the cloud. Integrating new software in an industry where there’s no margin for error is risky, and sometimes deadly.

In an industry where seconds can mean the difference between life and death, many public safety departments are hesitant to take risks on new cloud-based technologies.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Dialing 911 could be the most important phone call you will ever make. But what happens when the software that’s supposed to deliver that call fails you? It may seem simple, but the technology behind a call for help is complicated, and when it fails, deadly.

The infrastructure supporting emergency contact centers is one of the most critical assets for any city, town or local government. But just as the pandemic exposed the creaky tech infrastructure that runs local governments, in many cases the technology in those call centers is outdated and hasn’t been touched for decades.

Keep Reading Show less
Aisha Counts

Aisha Counts (@aishacounts) is a reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software. Formerly, she was a management consultant for EY. She's based in Los Angeles and can be reached at


'The Wilds' is a must-watch guilty pleasure and more weekend recs

Don’t know what to do this weekend? We’ve got you covered.

Our favorite things this week.

Illustration: Protocol

The East Coast is getting a little preview of summer this weekend. If you want to stay indoors and beat the heat, we have a few suggestions this week to keep you entertained, like a new season of Amazon Prime’s guilty-pleasure show, “The Wilds,” a new game from Horizon Worlds that’s fun for everyone and a sneak peek from Adam Mosseri into what Instagram is thinking about Web3.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.


Work expands to fill the time – but only if you let it

The former Todoist productivity expert drops time-blocking tips, lofi beats playlists for concentrating and other knowledge bombs.

“I do hope the productivity space as a whole is more intentional about pushing narratives that are about life versus just work.”

Photo: Courtesy of Fadeke Adegbuyi

Fadeke Adegbuyi knows how to dole out productivity advice. When she was a marketing manager at Doist, she taught users via blogs and newsletters about how to better organize their lives. Doist, the company behind to-do-list app Todoist and messaging app Twist, has pushed remote and asynchronous work for years. Adegbuyi’s job was to translate these ideas to the masses.

“We were thinking about asynchronous communication from a work point of view, of like: What is most effective for doing ambitious and awesome work, and also, what is most advantageous for living a life that feels balanced?” Adegbuyi said.

Keep Reading Show less
Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at

Latest Stories