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China's AI chip industry shows signs of strain as two key players look like they might be in trouble

 A brain shape made out of circuits and a processor.
A brain shape made out of circuits and a processor.

As US chip export sanctions continue to be enforced, there are signs that the Chinese AI chip industry may be feeling the strain. Two of the country's leading chip manufacturers and designers are showing signs of struggle, and as the restrictions continue to put the squeeze on China's chip manufacturing and development sector, it seems that the industry may be feeling the effects.

The CEO and co-founder of Chinese AI GPU manufacturer Biren Technology, Xu Lingjie, has recently resigned (via Tom's Hardware), while Cambricon, a leading AI chip developer considered to be a key player within the industry, has been laying off staff since last summer, with its market value said to have nearly halved since it went public in 2020.

While Cambricon's issues have been long-standing, the company was added to the US Commerce Department's "entity list" in December of last year, severely restricting its access to US chip technology and manufacturing equipment, while Biren Technology was added last October.

It's not just the AI sector that seems to be in trouble. China's economy has had a rocky start to the year, with a stock market slide that saw large percentage drops in key financial metrics and the People's Bank of China announcing large cuts to how much cash banks hold in reserve, in an attempt to boost lending and help the struggling economy recover.

Just last week the CEO of Intel, Pat Gelsinger, made comments in a conversation at the World Economic Forum in regards to the current technological gap between China and the rest of the world in regards to chip manufacture and design, stating that he believes that there is a "10-year gap" in relation to the two. He further went on to say that he believed the gap to be sustainable, thanks to the export policies that have already been put in place.

Recent comments made by the Chinese ambassador to the Netherlands, Tan Jian, in an interview with a Dutch newspaper may reveal a shift towards a stronger rhetoric in regards to the ongoing US restrictions for those trading with China.

"If the Americans treat us in a hegemonic way, we will of course react" the ambassador said. "The U.S. has stretched their idea of security far too far, including to things that have nothing to do with military risks".

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While it's unclear if the ambassador's comments are directly related to the difficulties faced by the country's AI industry, it could be taken as a sign that China's officials are becoming more exasperated at the US export restrictions that are squeezing China's ability to develop and manufacture AI hardware that's capable of keeping up with the rest of the world.

The restrictions haven't stopped some Chinese chip-manufacturers from attempting to get around the bans, with the US China Economic and Security review commission finding in a recent report that "importers are often able to purchase the (chip-making) equipment if they claim it is being used on an older production line".

While these export restrictions seem to have placed a significant strain on international relations between the two countries, it seems there's little sign of any meaningful easing of the situation anytime soon.