ON TUESDAY, the U.S. has yet to find evidence that Chinese manufacturer Huawei can produce smartphones with advanced chips in large volume, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said. Huawei drew attention in late August when it started selling its Mate 60 Pro phone, which contains a chip that analysts believe was made with a technology breakthrough by Chinese chip foundry Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp (SMIC) (0981. H.K.). The U.S. Commerce Department is now seeking more information about the chip, which may violate trade restrictions on chipmaking equipment.
The Huawei chip was reportedly designed with a 7-nanometer node, a few generations behind the latest U.S. technology, but still represents an impressive achievement for China’s semiconductor industry. It sparked hopes that SMIC could eventually compete with the best from American companies such as Samsung, Intel, and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co Ltd (TSMC). That led to a surge in shares of chip designers, gearmakers, and suppliers, including those owned by Huawei.
But on Tuesday, Raimondo told a House hearing that “we don’t have any evidence that they can manufacture seven-nanometer (chips) at scale.” She was responding to questions from Rep. Jeffryll Flake, R-Arizona, and others.
The U.S. is still determining if SMIC has access to the kind of cutting-edge tooling needed to produce a high-end 5G chip. The Commerce Department has imposed export controls on SMIC and its parent company, China’s Huawei Technologies Co Ltd, over national security concerns. The controls prohibit firms from buying the advanced chipmaking equipment TSMC and other top-tier global companies use.
TechInsights, a research firm, has taken apart the Mate 60 Pro and found that the Kirin processor uses an older 14-nanometer node, well short of the state-of-the-art technology. That isn’t likely to change SMIC’s ability to sell its new smartphone to consumers, but it suggests that the U.S. sanctions may be ineffective.
Chinese social media users have been teasing the U.S. government about the effectiveness of the sanctions, including one viral image that showed Raimondo in a fake ad campaign touting the phone. It’s an example of how Beijing has cultivated many influencers on social media who parrot the government’s perspective and can be seen as quasi-official endorsements. The proliferation of the influencers is part of Beijing’s larger propaganda strategy, including state-run T.V. personalities and employees moonlighting as lifestyle influencers on platforms such as X. The teasing hasn’t stopped. The Huawei-Raimondo memes are just the latest. Undoubtedly, this is just the beginning of a long game between the two nations over the next generation of mobile technologies. The stakes are enormous, and the broader world is watching. VOA’s Yishai Chen contributed to this report.