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US Ban on Americans Aiding China Chip Firms Narrower Than Feared


(Bloomberg) — Washington’s restrictions on US citizens assisting China’s chip industry will be more narrowly enforced than feared, suggesting a smaller-than-expected impact on semiconductor companies doing business in the world’s second largest economy.

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The rules seem to be mostly targeting US persons working in certain functions for semiconductor manufacturing equipment firms, based on a document the Bureau of Industry and Security published last Friday to clarify export control measures announced on Oct. 7. Those sweeping sanctions were introduced to keep cutting-edge chip technologies out of reach for China’s military but have amplified uncertainty around its tech industry and wrought havoc on global chip stocks.

A license is required for US persons — anyone with an American passport, green card or residency — conducting or authorizing the delivery of items used to develop or produce advanced chips at a plant in China, but not those who perform related clerical or administrative duties. The same controls apply to US persons who maintain, repair and refurbish those items, according to the document.

Foreign-born designers and engineers, along with Chinese people with overseas passports, have long played an instrumental role in the nation’s technological development. The new curbs triggered widespread concern in the country’s chip industry that US staff would be completely sidelined. Several major Chinese semiconductor firms rely on US passport holders for their top management, Bloomberg News has reported.

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Chinese chipmakers like Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. or machinery suppliers such as Naura Technology Group Co. may still be affected, but the measures will only prevent people from performing certain functions. US personnel affiliated with China’s fast-growing chip design sector may end up unaffected — semiconductor design firms generally do not run plants or own much machinery directly.

The US agency declined to provide further comment on the restrictions.

On Oct. 7, BIS formally banned shipments of US equipment for fabrication of logic chips built at a 16-nanometer or more advanced process, NAND chips with 128 layers or more and DRAM chips above a certain threshold in China. Some multinationals, such as memory maker SK Hynix Inc., have won a one-year reprieve to keep receiving equipment at their plants in the country without additional US approval. The agency also restricted US persons from supporting the development or production of chips at plants in China.

The new US measures have brought sizable impact to the $550 billion global chip industry that’s already being squeezed by an economic downturn. Companies like Dutch chip equipment maker ASML Holding NV have now prohibited American staff from supporting Chinese customers. American equipment suppliers Applied Materials Inc., KLA Corp. and Lam Research Corp. have pulled employees from Yangtze Memory Technologies Co., the country’s most advanced maker of memory chips, and all three have said their sales will take a hit from the new round of export control rules.

“We scoped our measures narrowly,” US Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Export Administration Thea D. Rozman Kendler said on a public call on Oct 13. “That ensures that our actions will have the least possible impact on commercial activity and not cause disruptions to the global supply chain.”

–With assistance from Eric Martin and Ian King.

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