Ni Guangnan, Academician of the Chinese Academy of Engineering: China Already Achieved Breakthrough Regarding Beidou Challenges, will the Breakthrough of Chips Challenge Be Far Away?

Liang Ning, a former assistant to Ni Guangnan, published an article this week named “A Relevant Remark on Chinese Homemade Chips and Operating Systems.” He recalled the history of developing chips and operating systems together with Ni Guangnan and others in that article, which brushed burst out of the whole Wechat friends circle. Just before this, ZTE was sanctioned by the U.S. government and was banned from buying sensitive products from U.S. companies within the next 7 years. Ni Guangnan, the 79-year-old authority in the field of domestic chips and operating systems, once again became the focus. Is ZTE’s encounter accidental or inevitable? ZTE’s encounter reminds us to think about how far it is to create our own “Chinese Chips”. Voice of China had an exclusive interview with Academician Ni Guangnan regarding this yesterday afternoon.

Liang Ning, Ni Guangnan’s former assistant, wrote in his over-100,000-word article: Academician Ni was 79 years old in 2018, but he was still striving for autonomously controlled chips and operating systems that belong to China. The Ni Guangnan we met that day had just finished his agenda of a forum. He was wearing a suit with a shock of white hair. He is moderate and humble, and always pays great attentions to the questions the young people ask. The evaluation of him being a “genuine gentleman” from his assistant vividly catches the light.

Ni Guangnan described ZTE event: information security was seized as troublesome issue.

Ni Guangnan once again become a hot topic of public opinion because of one article he published on Internet. This article was based on the 7-year export ban to ZTE Corporation by U.S. Department of Commerce, which led to the consideration of the core competitiveness of China’s semiconductor chip industry. As for the ZTE incident, Ni Guangnan stated that apart from the fact that the core technology was not well-controlled and mastered, information security should also be a noteworthy point of this incident. “From ZTE incident, it shows that if we don’t well manage or master the core technologies, our production will be affected once the chip suppliers stop providing chips to us. We call this as being seized by throat in supply chain. More seriously, another fact regarding core technologies becomes troublesome issue which ZTE case has not yet exposed: If we use imported products and applications from foreign companies, it may lead to risks that our information might be monitored or our privacy might be leaked out, or a Trojan horse virus might be planted in system. All these explains the core technologies are constrained by others in the aspect of international security.”

Ni Guangnan: The difficulty level of chips is not even close to the level of Beidou technology.

18 years ago, Ni Guangnan, as well as the whole IT industry in China was always worried about that Chinese operating systems and Chinese chips had no proprietary intellectual property rights. Xu Guanhua, the minister of Science and Technology at the time, once said, “China’s information industry lacks chips and operating system that have Chinese independent intellectual property rights.” Now 18 years has gone, this situation has not yet changed fundamentally. After ZTE incident which gave out an alarm, the distance between our current situation and “China Chips” became an issue that Ni Guangnan was frequently asked. Ni Guangnan said that we broke through the difficulties and challenges of Beidou technology, and the difficulty of breaking through chip technologies is not same as the difficulty to break through Beidou technology. “GPS positioning was really difficult and tough because it required both aerospace technology and Internet communication technology. The difficulty of Beidou system is beyond normal Internet communication system. Although it was truly difficult, we had to overcome it, and we finally make it into a fact after about 10 years’ effort.”

Ni Guangnan: Design and manufacture are the weakness of the chip industry in China.

Then, here comes the question: What becomes the difficulties resulting in the “lack of chips with Chinese proprietary intellectual property rights”? According to Ni Guangnan’s introduction, regarding the chips used in desktop computers and portable computers in China, there is about 3-5 years’ gap between domestic chips and imported chips; regarding the chips used in mobile phones and servers, some domestic chips are equated with imported chips. However, “there is still a large gap in some special areas. In addition, in the design and manufacturing of chip industry, China is mainly weak in manufacturing, which is 8-10 years behind the United States. To overcome the weakness of manufacturing in chip industry, I think we have to make great investment in the development of chip manufacturing in order to reach the advanced level in foreign countries. However, it really takes a long time to catch up. This is a bit similar to the situation of our traditional industries. For example, while we design integrated circuits, we use EDA software, which is relatively large scale. Besides, we also have software for computer-aided design, auxiliary engineering and auxiliary manufacturing, which we call as KE and KM. These software are often relatively large, and it takes a long time to invest and improve, but it is currently weak compared with that of western countries. However, we do not have big gap with western countries in Internet communication field.”

Now we have Beidou system; we will eventually have our own “Chinese chips”. While being optimistic about the results, Ni Guangnan admitted that it needs large investment and long return period to achieve the goal of this industry. He believed that the government should play a greater role to promote the enthusiasm of the company. “In most cases, it should be possible to achieve based on the expanding development of some of our current domestic companies. Maybe some particular large-scale software manufacturing, such as integrated circuit, do not need special attention. In general, it should make more use of the company’s innovative capabilities to integrate production and research into one entirety. Another important thing is market guidance. For example, currently the Chinese government in China annually consumes 10% of the market, because China is a large country with large consumption demands, the Chinese government demands of procurement equals to that of one or two countries in Europe. Therefore, it is also very important to fully and properly play the role of market.”

Ni Guangnan: Be cautious and optimistic about internet giants investing in “China chip”.

Who will break through the pain of chips for China? After Baidu, Tencent, IFLYTEK, Huawei and other giants laid out in the chip industry, Alibaba Group announced that it would wholly acquire Zhongtian Micro which was the only company in mainland China that massively produce its own embedded CPU IP Core. Ni Guangnan is cautious and optimistic about this, because in his point of view, “national support” is a more critical factor: “Under normal circumstances, companies only need to focus on production, research and development, and the state will be responsible for mobilizing their enthusiasm. However, it is enough to just have support from them. If we have to invest hundreds of billions of dollars, I think it is too much for these BAT companies. Maybe they can’t solve all the problems. It is not reasonable to put the responsibilities of the affairs of the whole company into the shoulder of companies.”

In 1988, associative Chinese character system developed by Ni Guangnan managed to solve a series of technical problems, crowning him with the first prize of national scientific and technological progress, and his company was also renamed Lenovo Group. In response to government’s strategic consulting in 2013, Ni Guangnan bluntly stated “to research and develop China’s autonomous controllable operating system based on the shared software architecture.” In the context of the current encounter of ZTE, we can see that the words of Ni Guangnan are foresight and sagacity, but also reveals our unfulfilled ambition.