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With its export controls last year, the US administration tried to draw a line at preventing China from getting access to 14nm chips, or about eight years behind the most advanced technology. The US had also blacklisted both Huawei and SMIC. Now China has demonstrated it can produce at least limited quantities of chips five years behind the cutting-edge, inching closer to its objective of self-sufficiency in the critical area of semiconductors.

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2023-09-04/look-inside-huawei-mate-60-pro-phone-powered-by-made-in-china-chip#xj4y7vzkg

Was the U.S. surprised about the Huawei breakthrough, how much time did the government or think-tanks expect China to take to produce a 7nm chip? It seems like the U.S. didn't expect China to bridge the gap as quickly. What explains why their estimates ended up being so wrong?

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    The quote doesn't really say that they were surprised. So I guess the true answer is that nobody knows. And the secondary question would be, why is it important that they may or may not have been surprised? Maybe the question should be if they saw a way to deny China further refinement of the process, but probably they would not expect a simple embargo to have such an effect. However, it's no question that without the actions, China would have gained that state even earlier, so it was probably the right thing from their point of view. Maybe the question is then if the US could have done more? Sep 5, 2023 at 19:14
  • Americans underestimated USSR and Chinese nuclear break through too, they also ignored warnings about Pearl Harbour and 9/11.
    – Faito Dayo
    Sep 25, 2023 at 14:14

4 Answers 4

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Here's the Asianometry vid - China's 7nm Semiconductor Breakthrough about just this. He's generally on point with this stuff. From what I can understand it - it's quite dense - he more or less states:

  • No, this particular chip is not that impressive.

  • However, it will significantly boost China's semiconductor ecosystem. More volume => better yields. That was something I missed.

  • China is still not getting EUV. But quite a lot doesn't need it.

  • The West is/will probably have to tighten down rules on DUV machines.


I don't know if it's all as significant as made out.

There are 2 things to consider: the node size, 7nm, which is a rather fluffy marketing notion by now. An Intel 10nm can sometimes be compared to an AMD 7nm, for example.

The second, more important, is how the process was achieved. And there we bring in DUV and EUV, respectively Deep and Extreme Ultraviolet, which refers to the wavelength of the engraving lights.

Starting about 6-7 years ago, companies reached 7nm, but using DUV technology, as EUV was not ready yet. It worked, but it was very suboptimal, as the feature size was just too small to work with DUV mechanisms. Further development, in the West and Taiwan, proceeded with EUV, which was a much better fit and allowed further improvements.

It seems that the "breakthrough" in China's current 7nm is of the same nature - managing to make hay with DUV tech, as this is all they have access to. If that is the case then it is fairly self-limiting in nature.

Also, this isn't a complete surprise either, as there was already some coverage of this 7nm stuff about a year ago.

You can find reports similar to this one by Tom's Hardware (contrary to claims made in the previous question on this subject, this has hardly been kept secret):

Meanwhile, SMIC's Twinscan NXT:2000i deep ultraviolet (DUV) lithography scanners can make chips on 7nm and 5nm technologies, so that the company may have developed a 5nm-class fabrication process. There is an essential detail, though: to print outstanding features on a 5nm-class node or a refined 7nm-class process technology, SMIC has to heavily use multi-patterning, which is an expensive technology that affects yields and costs, so the economic efficiency of SMIC's 5nm-class technology is likely considerably lower than that of market leaders Intel, TSMC, and Samsung Foundry.

i.e. the bottleneck is more the lithography equipment than what's being made with them. China's active in that domain, we'll see what progress they make. In the meantime, they buy lots of DUV. China's also is fairly active with RISC-V tech (essentially open source CPUs), though that doesn't in itself solve their foundry challenges.

Keep in mind: one could see reasons why Western press may want to pooh-pooh Chinese achievements, so this viewpoint is best taken with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Here's a more favorable take:

TechInsights will soon publish a technical analysis and review of the Huawei Mate 60 Pro. If the use of SMIC's N+2 7nm (integrated SRAM cache) and 5G RF front-end chipset is confirmed, it will be a major milestone and breakthrough for China's semiconductor industry.

Wait for a few weeks at most and I'd expect to see coverage by the Asianometry channel on YouTube if there's anything noteworthy, guy loves that stuff.


The Asianometry guy generally seems down on China's semiconductor endeavors though, with episodes like "The Flawed Assumptions Behind China's Big Semiconductor Fund" or "China's ASML is Years and Years Behind". I have not watched those, but did watch episodes highly critical of Soviet and Communist computer tech. The fact that is based in Taiwan is also worth mentioning, given the tensions between those 2 countries. He is worth listening to, just be aware that he might not be totally unbiased wrt China.

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  • Very informative answer -but! Lots of respect for Asianometry channel, but I've never seen any evidence for "He's generally down on China's semiconductor endeavors though" Perhaps it's simply the facts themselves that sometimes put China semi in bad light? And "(he lives in Taiwan)" seems out of place here. Yes if he's not in mainland China he's free to explain facts. Localizing his residence in Taiwan seems to try to cast shade on him, as if begrudging China is in the drinking water or something. So -1 for now, that last sentence seems to be purely opinion-based and irrelevant.
    – uhoh
    Sep 5, 2023 at 4:23
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    @uhoh I've edited the answer some to bring more clarity. It do believe it's relevant to note when experts cover countries that they may have some national antipathies with - say Cuba - America. Or Pakistan - India. Nevertheless, I don't necessarily think he's wrong - otherwise I wouldn't recommend him - just be aware of a possible bias in this case. Sep 5, 2023 at 7:42
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    Looks good, thanks! I think once we establish that an entity has some intelligence (human or otherwise) the possibility of bias is an absolute given and we all understand that. Taking time to point it out in certain cases and not others feels... biased. So we've established that you're an intelligent entity, congrats! :-) ("I have bias, therefore I am.") Anyway, I'm still curious; have you noticed any potential evidence of bias besides an association with a geographic location?
    – uhoh
    Sep 5, 2023 at 7:59
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    @uhoh It's completely normal to point out potential (!) biases. We should do more of that, not less.
    – xLeitix
    Sep 5, 2023 at 11:01
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica I don't think Asianometry is biased toward China. His episode about Chinese nuclear weapon is very clear on why China, despite all its internal hardship, needs to develop nuke--to stop western and later, soviet, aggression and to protect china from invasion.
    – Faito Dayo
    Sep 6, 2023 at 4:56
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Question: Was the U.S. surprised about the Huawei breakthrough, how much time did the government or think-tanks expect China to take to produce a 7nm chip? It seems like the U.S. didn't expect China to bridge the gap as quickly.

Short Answer

Western industry analysts are suspicious.

  • the introduction while the US Labor secretary was visiting makes it as much a political statement as a technological achievment
  • startup time for the new chip fabrication line doesn't appear to be realistic.
  • no Launch Event for the new phone
  • the phone was introduced by listing it on Huawei's website, Huawei is known for extravagant launching events and this is their first new phone in 3 years and it's a high end phone.
  • Huawei did not mention the phone was 5g compatible on their website
  • Huawei did not reveal the CPU or chip set nor manufacture of those items or give any technical specifications.
  • none of the tech specs on this phone have even now come from the manufactures
  • nearly everything we know of this phone comes from Chinese consumers unboxing videos, some of whom are engineers who opened their phone to discover the internal chipset
  • Huawei the phone manufacture and SMIC the chip manufacture are still silent on their achievement and technical specifications.
  • the technology itself 7 nm chips were available to China prior to sanctions taking effect and it's known China hoarded such chips at that time

So we know very little but are suspicious. This could be a post sanction technological achievement as touted by Chinese state media. It could also be explained by Huawei drawing upon hoarded pre-sanction chips. We don't know yet.

Answer

Very Impressed if they did it, somewhat suspicious that they didn't. In the most advanced technological countries who aren't inventing key technologies in parallel with standing up a fabrication facility; it takes about 3 years. That's for a company like Intel which understands all the complexities, a long track record of building fabrication facilities, and has access to all the necessary technology. For Intel they just have to build the facility, assemble install and provision the technology; takes them 3 years. China without an existing similar manufacturing line, without existing knowledge base, without access to the key enabling technologies such as ultraviolet lithography machines and about 1000 other advanced tools necessary to manufacture these chips; they were able to create their fabrication facility in 2 years? And then of coarse create enough chips to support the introduction of a new line of cell phones. This is a truly a remarkable achievement, worthy of national pride, if they did it.

Question #2 What explains why their estimates ended up being so wrong?

Let's review why the west is a bit suspicious. Coinciding with a visit by U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, China introduces a new domestically home grown 5 g smartphone not with a high visibility launch event which Huawei is famous for, but just listing the new offering on their web site. In the web site listing, no technical specs were provided on the new phone, no mention was made of the new ground breaking chip powering their new phone.

Huawei Mate 60 Pro’s HiSilicon Kirin 9000s Chip Explained:

On August 29th, Huawei, seemingly out of nowhere, announced the Mate 60 Pro. The company did not hold any sort of launch event. The device was simply listed on its official website and first-party online store, VMall. This is unlike Huawei, as the telecom giant is known for extravagant events, especially for its premium products. What was even more shocking to learn was that the device supports 5G connectivity. However, the company makes no mention of 5G support and the name of the chipset found inside the phone.

Did Huawei already develop its own 5G chip to get around US sanctions?

Huawei released the Mate 60 Pro on Wednesday with little fanfare and some missing details -- namely. The kind of chip it uses. Any mention of a chip is notable absent from the $960 phone's product pages despite mentioning "better communication experience" and a stable network connection."

All the tech specs we know are coming from unboxing video's from happy consumers some of whom are 3rd party Chinese engineers who have disassembled their new phones to seek out the chip inside? Huawei and SMIC are both suspiciously quiet on their tremendous achievement and the details there of.

So knowing very little commercially here in the west. It appears China has leaped ahead technologically to produce 7 nm chip, 2 generations removed from state of the art western chips which currently exist at 4 and 3 nm. China has "re-invented" their chips which technologically correspond to chips which they have been known to be hoarding prior to western sanctions taking effect. We will have to wait and hear if these domestic chips are pre-sanction chips made in the west, pre-sanction chips made in China, or indeed a domestic manufacturing stunning achievement devoid of dependencies on sanctioned western technology.

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    To add to this, there are a litany of stories out of China of local chip manufacturers getting caught rebranding other chips as their own. Very recently a scandal involving rebranded AMD chips.
    – David S
    Sep 5, 2023 at 16:03
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    OK, I upvoted because it is true that setting up fabs for smaller nm processes can be problematic. Just ask Intel. So your analysis is yet another, valid, way to look at a complex situation. Still, I can't say I follow your claim of "stunning achievement devoid of dependencies on western technology." Where do you think their foundry comes from? It's certainly not home-grown. And the next gen won't be for sale. The role of imported Taiwanese engineers is also well-known, something TW is keen to limit in the future Sep 5, 2023 at 16:47
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica changed that line to devoid of dependencies on sanctioned western technology.
    – user47010
    Sep 5, 2023 at 18:18
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"TMSC shipped N7 in volume in 2018" (with Apple A12 etc.) So, if volumes materialize from SMIC (right now it's one chip for one Huawei 'flagship') SMIC still is about 5 years behind.

A quick look US public intel assessments SMIC e.g. finds this one from a think tank in Jan 2021:

SMIC, China’s leading competitor in the foundry segment, remains four or five years behind TSMC in technology, despite almost two decades of investment.

So, no, overall this piece of (7nm) news hasn't changed much if anything. As noted extensively in another answer, N7 was the las DUV process from TMSC, the newer ones use EUV, which insofar SMIC doesn't have access to.

(I don't want to get into that kind of flame war here, but for comparison, Apple's current flagships use their A16 chip, made in 4- or 5-nm process, depending whom you ask. I don't see any indication SMIC or Huawei has bridged this gap.)



For the more geeky inclined, I've not seen a more detailed analysis of SMIC's "N+2" process, which is what this Huawei chip was made in, but there is one for SMIC's prototype N+1 process disclosed last year, when they showcased the first "7nm" samples:

Recent findings from TechInsights prove that Fin Pitch (FP), Contacted Poly Pitch (CPP) and Metal 2 Pitch (M2P) sizes of SMIC’s N+1 are larger (FP) or the same as TSMC’s N10 fabrication process, which might point to the fact that this is a TSMC's N10-like technology with relaxed rules, but it is not. Extensive Design Technology Co-Optimization (DTCO) features and high-density logic libraries enable a logic transistor density of 89 million transistors per square millimeter (89MT/mm^2), which is comparable to what TSMC’s N7 and Intel’s 10nm offer, making N+1 a viable 7nm-class alternative (at least for logic, as scaling SRAM is tricky).

Apparently, according to that piece, the first SMIC chips made in that tech went to "MinerVa Semiconductor's Bitcoin mining chip since July 2021 without disclosing it."

As for SMIC's N+2, if anything the hype was greater in Sep 2022, when it was even called '5nm' by some.

SMIC briefly mentioned its N+2 technology in 2020. While this one is yet another evolutionary step from its 14nm node, China's analysts seem to label it a '5nm-class' technology since it is one step ahead of N+1, considered a '7nm-class' node. However, DUV tools with 193nm ArF laser have known limitations regarding resolution, and intensive usage of multi-patterning to lower critical dimensions of circuits affects yields.

[...] it is very intriguing to see a [Chinese] state media revealing SMIC's '5nm' technology in its rather detailed report about SMIC's mass production of 14nm chips [...] according to Global Times, which brought up 'independent' experts who spoke about N+1 (7nm-class) and N+2 (5nm-class) fabrication processes.

So, yeah, this is actually a bit underwhelming compared to the '5nm' hype for N+2 by Chinese media last year.

(Another source mentions that the MinerVa chips were shipped in July 2022, so there might a typo in the quote that regard, I'm not sure. There might some confusion between when the chips were shipped and when a Western [public] dissection of them happened. SMIC's N+1 process was taped out (gave 'noncommercial' samples) back in 2020 actually so even 2021 is a plausible date for shipping some volume to some customer who didn't wish for publicity, like that Bitcoin miner. FWTW, according to SMIC executives "trial mass-production" for N+1 began in April 2021.)


One of the more obscure points discussed by Chinese vloggers is that this chip (Kirin 9000S) is apparently [claimed to be] free of Arm IP in its large cores. This may or may not be the reason why devices with it insofar are China-only. Huawei may be afraid of a [patent infringement etc.] lawsuit if the sold the 9000S chip elsewhere or they may be simply testing the product in a friendly market before attempting any exports. As for energy efficiency, generally the 9000S doesn't seem to best the Kirin 9000 (used in other Huawei devices) that uses licensed Arm cores. (BTW, Huawei released a "Pro+" version of this Mate device this week. Again "with no prior advertisement" according to Reuters. Insofar it's not too clear it how differs from the "Pro" besides RAM & storage.)


One side that did declare itself surprised was South Korea, and Hynix in particular. Not because of the SMIC tech, but because their own Hynix memory chips (both RAM and NAND) apparently are found in the Mate 60 Pro, despite Hynix officially saying they don't do business with Huawei anymore [owing to US sanctions]. Speculation was that Huawei either used old stocks of Hynix chips they had or bought them indirectly.


And one other point is that the new Mate 60 phones are apparently 5G.... even though Huawei publicly denied in early August they were planning to release such phones. A lot of the Western commentary thus was on this angle (5G) as a/the surprise.

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  • One thing that seems certain is that Huawei seems committed to this new chip across their line, so perhaps they're confident SMIC can deliver in volume. They've now launched a foldable (X5) with it notebookcheck.net/… Sep 9, 2023 at 6:32
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This is latest comment from Press Briefing by Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan

MR. SULLIVAN: I’m going to withhold comment on the particular chip in question until we get more information about precisely its character and composition.

And for my — from my perspective though, what it tells us, regardless, is that the United States should continue on its course of a “small yard, high fence” set of technology restrictions focused narrowly on national security concerns, not on the broader question of commercial decoupling. That is where our emphasis has been. That’s where it’s going to continue, sort of, regardless of the outcome.

But in terms of characterizing the chip in question, that’s something that we need to gain more information from before we make any definitive comments on it.

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