Huawei was fighting to stay afloat as a smartphone manufacturer in 2020.
Few months prior, the Trump administration had imposed crippling sanctions on the Chinese company, cutting it out of global semiconductor supply chains.
Huawei was unable to obtain new chips for its more advanced phones because of the sanctions.
Huawei’s response was to place its $67-billion chip and mobile business at risk by striking a deal with Semiconductor manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC), a foundry owned by the government that is known for its ambition to compete with global chipmakers.
SMIC advertised that it could produce advanced chips with outdated equipment. It would take longer than Huawei’s previous supplier, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, it would cost more, and it might not work. It was a risk. Huawei contacted SMIC for a new smartphone “system on a chip,” codenamed Charlotte.
The odds were against both companies. In December 2020, SMIC joined Huawei on the US sanctions list—meaning any company wanting to sell technology to SMIC would require Washington’s permission.
SMIC faced a complex process that it had never encountered before, as well as new limitations on the acquisition and management of complex equipment. SMIC was likened by a close SMIC executive to “measuring an elephant in the dark.”
Yet nearly three years later, in August 2023, a new Huawei device was quietly unveiled to the public: the Mate 60 series phone, powered by Charlotte—now known as the Kirin 9000S chip.
According to different testing teams, despite the obstacles, the Kirin-9000S chip performed as well as Qualcomm chips that are 1 or 2 years old.
Nationalists and tech enthusiasts applauded the return of Huawei’s chips after years of sanctions.
The US was confused about how Huawei produced the chips. Jake Sullivan (US national security advisor) said that America must get out of the way. “more information” Kirin 9000S – a brief description
“Perhaps the most surprising fact about the Huawei breakthrough is that so many US government leaders were evidently surprised,” Gregory Allen, director of Wadhwani Center for AI and Advanced Technologies, wrote in an in-depth report about Huawei’s new phone.
Huawei and SMIC have not revealed how they achieved the feat. But interviews with dozens of industry insiders and experts offer the closest look yet at how the companies threw vast resources at the project, with the support of the Chinese state, to maintain market share—and have now opened the door to advances in cutting-edge AI chip production.
Whether China can maintain the momentum and achieve global technological dominance amid continuing geopolitical issues will be determined by their ability to do so. The Kirin 9000S is a proof that China can compete with its rivals despite sanctions. Did the companies capture lightning by accident?
The FT was asked by most of the sources to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the semiconductor sector.