China’s Vice-Premier Liu He appointed ‘chip czar’ to lead semiconductor self-sufficiency

By Elles Houweling

Chinese President Xi Jinping has appointed his top economic advisor and Vice-Premier to realise the country’s goal of achieving technological self-sufficiency. Xi’s economic czar, Liu He, will lead a key initiative aimed at helping Chinese semiconductor manufacturers overcome US sanctions.

Liu, whose portfolio spans trade to finance and technology, has been tapped to spearhead the development of China’s third-generation chip development and capabilities and is leading the formulation of a series of financial and policy supports for the technology, Bloomberg reported, citing people with knowledge of the matter.

The development of third-generation semiconductors is a rapidly growing field that relies on newer materials compared to traditional chips. Silicon carbide (SiC) – the second hardest material in the world after diamond – and gallium nitride (GaN) are two important materials, with the use of the former becoming increasingly common.

No nation has yet achieved dominance in the sphere of third-generation semiconductors, giving China a unique opportunity to sidestep the obstacles imposed on its chipmaking industry by the US and its allies.

In a national address earlier this month, President Xi said that China needed to accelerate its efforts in becoming self-reliant when it comes to science and technology. The urgency was undoubtedly exacerbated by the ongoing trade war with Washington, which effectively banned many Chinese tech companies from doing business with the US.

As a result, Beijing has pledged to ramp up efforts to decrease reliance on foreign partners. According to GlobalData’s thematic research, China announced a $1.4tn state program to support R&D in key enabling technologies over the next five years. These include semiconductors, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, 5G and 6G, data centres and cloud, quantum computing technologies and low-earth orbit satellites.

The appointment of Liu to lead China’s chip efforts underline the importance accorded by Beijing to the initiative, which is gaining urgency as rivals from the US to Japan and South Korea scramble to boost their own semiconductor industries.

Liu has an impressive background in economics, with an undergraduate degree in industrial economics from Renmin University in Beijing. He later obtained a Masters of Public Administration from Harvard University. He has published widely on macroeconomics, industrial structure, new economic theory and the information industry, some of which have won national science awards.

He joined the Communist Party in 1976 and has gradually made his way up the ranks. Xi has long called upon his childhood friend and right-hand man to tackle issues of top national priority. In 2018, he was named vice-premier and put in charge of the Financial Stability and Development Committee.

Last month, Liu presided over the annual Science and Technology Forum, where the nation’s most prominent scientists discussed the country’s strategy to introduce disruptive technologies and how to grow the next-generation chip industry facing the post-Moore era.