China is by far the largest consumer of semiconductors; it accounts for about 45 percent of the worldwide demand for chips, used both in China and for exports. But more than 90 percent of its consumption relies on imported integrated circuits. Integrated-circuit companies in China entered the semiconductor market late—some two decades after the rest of the world—and have been playing catch-up ever since in an industry in which success depends on scale and learning efficiencies. The Chinese government made several attempts to build a local semiconductor industry, but none really took hold. Now, however, things are changing on both the business and policy fronts.
Low-cost smartphones designed in China are flooding the market. For instance, Android phones designed in China now represent more than 50 percent of the global market, compared with their negligible presence five years ago. Lenovo’s significant deals early in 2014—first acquiring IBM’s low-end x86-based server business for $2.3 billion and then buying Motorola from Google for almost $3 billion—further suggest that the customer base for hardware is moving to China. Meanwhile, Beijing and Shenzhen have become innovation hotbeds for wearable devices and other connected consumer electronics. Technology companies in these regions are not trailing others in this area of innovation; they are running neck and neck with other early entrants.
Multinational corporations in every industry—from automotive to industrial controls to enterprise equipment—increasingly are establishing design centers on the mainland to be closer to customers and benefit from local Chinese talent. McKinsey’s proprietary research indicates that more than 50 percent of PCs, and between 30 and 40 percent of embedded systems (commonly found in automotive, commercial, consumer, industrial, and medical applications), contain content designed in China, either directly by mainland companies or emerging from the Chinese labs of global players. As the migration of design continues, China could soon influence up to 50 percent of hardware designs globally (including phones, wireless devices, and other consumer electronics).
Fabless semiconductor companies are also emerging in China to serve local customers. For instance, Shanghai-based Spreadtrum Communications, which designs chips for mobile phones, and Shenzhen-based HiSilicon Technologies, a captive supplier to Huawei and one of the largest domestic designers of semiconductors in China, are among the local designers that have shown rapid growth over the past few years.
There has been slower but steady progress among local foundries. For reasons including costs and scale—and, in some cases, export controls—these players traditionally have been reluctant to invest in cutting-edge technologies, always lagging three or four years behind the industry leaders. But the performance gap is shrinking. As global players such as Samsung, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, and Texas Instruments set up shop in China, leading local foundries such as Shanghai Huali Microelectronics Corporation, SMIC, and XMC are poised to benefit from the development of a true technology cluster. At the same time, fewer and fewer chip designs will be moving to technologies that are 20 nanometers and below; following Moore’s law is becoming too expensive and is of limited benefit to all but a small set of global semiconductor companies. As a result, low-cost, lagging-edge Chinese technology companies will soon be able to address a larger part of the global market.
China released the high-level framework for its new national semiconductor policy in June 2014; the details and the long-term effects of its new approach to developing the semiconductor industry in China remain to be seen. Will it lead to a world-class semiconductor industry, or will Chinese semiconductor companies continue to lag behind global players? Three medium-term effects seem likely.
China’s strong desire for national champions may further tilt the system in favor of local players. According to industry estimates, Chinese original-equipment manufacturers will design more than half of the world’s phones in 2015.1 Under the national-champions model, they may be encouraged to take advantage of domestic suppliers’ low-cost strategies and strong local technical support. Additionally, in the wake of global data-privacy and security concerns, there has been even more of a push from the Chinese government for state-owned and private enterprises to purchase from local system suppliers (that, in turn, are more likely to source from local semiconductor vendors).
Mainland China represents a huge opportunity for semiconductor manufacturers and equipment and materials suppliers. More information is available in our updated market research report: Mainland China’s Semiconductor and Equipment Markets: A Complete Analysis of the Technical, Economic, and Political Issues.