China's chip makers made more progress in the past five years than in the previous decade, people in the industry said.

IN 2020, the country's chip sales grew 30.6 percent to reach $39.8 billion, according to an analysis by the Semiconductor Industry Association , a trade organization and lobbying group in Washington.

But much of the headway was at the lower end of the very long production chain in semiconductors, and gaps in more advanced market segments remain large and could take years even decades to close. China still imports more chips than other product.

''Any government considering a push for self-reliance in semiconductors needs to face the harsh reality,'' said ChristopherA. Thomas, nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and Intel's former general manager in China, in an interview.

''Semiconductors represent the highest form of human engineering achievement. They are the most difficult thing we create as species. How can one country 'win at all' by itself?''

Charles Kau, a Taiwanese semiconductor veteran who has worked on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, said in a  recent newspaper interview that he had tried telling mainland tech executives many times that it could take China 30 - or even 50 - years to become an industry leader.

Such statements aren't likely to be what Mr.Xi wants to hear. Expected to secure a third term at an important Communist Party Congress this year, he is increasingly obsessed with tech ''choke points'' that have left China vulnerable in its trade war with the United States, including bans on companies like ZTE, a potential war over Taiwan and Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

This month, President Biden signed into law a $280 billion bill aimed at strengthening America's semiconductor manufacturing, design and research to compete with China.

To confront these challenges, Mr. Xi has reached back to Mao Zedong's playbook when China was operating a planned economy and had few friends and self-reliance was a necessity.

He doesn't hide his fondness for the Mao's era's top-down approach : mobilizing national resources to tackle big obstacles, which he claims is an advantage of China's authoritarian political system.

Such inward and backward vision has come to define Mr. Xi's views on how China should advance to become self-sufficient in tech and how fast. 

He has promoted technocrats from the space and defense industries who pulled off technologically challenging projects that he believes testify to the strength of China's system.

The purged semiconductor executives didn't live up to those standards. Zhao Weiguo, the YMTC chairman who stood behind Mr. Xi in a widely circulated photo of his 2018 visit, used to be the most high-profile person in the industry.

He earned the nickname ''semiconductor madman'' after making a series of eye-popping investments in the projects through the company he controlled, Tsinghua Unigroup. He is best known in the West for his failed 2015 takeover of Micron Technology, a U.S. maker of memory chips.

And there have been failures despite - or because of - a bounty of government money and subsidies.

In the first 10 months of 2020, more than 58,000 firms registered as chip-related enterprises, according to an analysis by China's Economic Weekly, a magazine affiliated with the Communist Party's official newspaper, People's Daily.

Liu Yadong, the former editor in chief of the official Science and Technology Daily, said in an interview in May that the whole nation system helped China win Olympic gold medals and build atomic bombs, ''but it's not fir for building semiconductor chips.''

Mr. Xi keeps pressing ahead. In June, he visited another semiconductor company in Wuhan. He stressed that tech self-reliance would be the foundation of China's prosperity and the key to national security.

''We must take the technology lifeline in our own hands,'' he said.'' If every city, every high-tech development district, every tech company and every researcher can follow the government's guidance in tech innovation, we will definitely be able to achieve the goal.''

The World Students Society thanks author Li Yuan.


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