Liang Mongsong at TSMC award ceremony in 2003. Photo: Wccftech

Whether a Taiwanese chip engineer who led Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp (SMIC) to make 7 nanometer chips for Huawei’s Mate60 Pro will be sanctioned by the United States has become a hot issue in Taiwan and mainland China.

In China’s chips pantheon, Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei now has company. Photo: Huawei

After the unexpected debut of the Kirin 9000s processor inside Mate60 Pro on August 29, Liang Mong-Song, managing director of SMIC and a former engineer at TSMC and Samsung, is now praised as a hero in the chip industry in China, alongside Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei and SMIC founder Zhang Rujing.

After the US Commerce Department revealed on September 7 that it was gathering information on the Mate60 Pro’s purported 7nm chip, many Taiwanese news websites said Liang probably was being probed and would face sanctions. Scoop Taiwan News, a Taiwanese magazine, on Monday published an article with the title “The US is investigating Huawei’s new chip. A traitor of TSMC could be sanctioned.”

“Who led SMIC to make 7nm chips? Many people pointed fingers at Liang Mongsong, who had been accused by TSMC of leaking industrial secrets some years ago,” the article said. “People are interested to know whether he will be sanctioned by the US.”

“How can the US admit defeat now? It’s impossible,” former Taiwanese foreign policy planning chief Dale Jieh Wen-chieh told the media. “The US will definitely strengthen its sanctions against Huawei. This time it will focus on curbing SMIC.”

“The US may penalize Liang in accordance with federal law,” Jieh said. “If he does not visit the US, he won’t be affected. But if he has assets in the US, he will lose them.” 

“Since he joined SMIC, Liang must have already prepared for the likelihood that one day he would become an enemy of the chip industry players in Taiwan and the US,” said Julian Kuo, a former member of the Legislative Yuan and a high-profile commentator.

“Liang knows clearly what he is chasing after in this life,” Kuo said. “His annual salary was only US$1.53 million in 2021, which is quite low in his ranking. Since 2021, he has donated his salary to his educational fund and spent a lot of time grooming young talent.”

Kuo expressed doubt that Liang has a large amount of assets in the US. Besides, he said SMIC gave Liang a 22.5 million yuan (US$3.1 million) apartment, which allows him not to worry about where to live. 

“If Taiwan and the US think Liang is a villain because of the US-China technology war, mainland China calls him a hero,” he said. 

Hero or villain? 

A video praising Liang’s contributions to China’s semiconductor industry has been widely circulated by Chinese netizens this week. 

An anchor says in the video that Liang will face sanctions if the US Commerce Department has evidence that he has personally violated the US export controls. The anchor says that, by sanctioning Liang, the US can send a signal to the world that whoever violates its export controls will suffer consequences. 

Other commentators point out that if Liang is sanctioned, he will lose the income generated from the 500 patents he is holding. Besides, some foreign chip engineers will become hesitant to work for Chinese chipmakers.

Some mainland commentators say it’s unreasonable to sanction Liang as the US curbs only forbid US nationals, not Taiwanese, from working for Chinese chipmakers. They also note that Liang didn’t join SMIC until 2017, eight years after he left TSMC. 

Born in 1953 in Taipei, Liang received his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the National Cheng Kung University and continued his studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Guided by American electrical engineer David Hodges, he received his doctoral degree in 1988.

He then joined AMD and participated in the development of K6 and K7 central processing units. In 1992, he returned to Taiwan and joined TSMC. 

SMIC managing director Liang Mong-Song was an employee of TSMC between 1992 and 2009. Photo:,

In 2000, Liang was dubbed as one of the “six knights” who helped TSMC develop a 130nm chip. In February 2009, he left TSMC after failing to get a promotion. After a two-year non-compete period expired, he joined Samsung with an annual salary of US$4 million. 

He was then sued by TSMC for leaking industrial secrets to Samsung. An analytical report commissioned by TSMC showed that Samsung’s 45, 32 and 28nm chips had used similar technologies as TSMC’s. Liang lost the lawsuit in 2015 and joined SMIC in 2017 with an initial annual salary of US$200,000.

In late 2020, he announced his resignation but later changed his mind after SMIC raised his salary to US$1.53 million and granted him an apartment. 

Future missions

Chip experts at write in an article published on Tuesday that SMIC made its 7nm chips by using a process similar to that used by TSMC in 2018. They say SMIC is “at worst only a handful” of years behind TSMC and “one could argue that SMIC is at most only a few years behind Intel and Samsung despite restrictions.”

They say the gap could prove to be even narrower as SMIC has an excellent engineering pool hired locally and from Taiwan. 

“Liang had contributed to the technological breakthroughs in the chip industry in Taiwan, South Korea and mainland China,” a Guangdong-based columnist says in an article published on September 7. “ASML’s lithography and Liang are the two prerequisites for China to make 5G chips.”

The writer says Liang has spent at least three years to help SMIC achieve the 7nm technology but it will take much longer to make 5nm chips, which require the use of extreme-ultraviolet (EUV) lithography. 

He says that, because the Dutch government banned the exports of ASML’s EUV lithography to China, Chinese chipmakers will have to wait for the launch of EUV lithography now being developed by Shanghai Micro Electronics Equipment (SMEE). 

SMEE’s most advanced lithography, SSA600/20, can make 90nm chips, according to the company’s website. Media reports say only one machine has so far been sold, for research use.

China’s Securities Times reported on July 26 that SMEE plans to deliver its first DUV lithography, which can make 28nm chips, by the end of this year. 

In fact, Liang had already said in 2021 that China had to face the reality that it cannot make 5nm chips without EUV lithography. He said then that it would be unrealistic to hope that the country could close its technological gap with the West suddenly.

Some commentators say any US curbs against Liang won’t make him quit SMIC but, rather, will help him gain reputation on the mainland. They say Liang’s coming missions are to help SMIC boost the yield of 7nm chips produced with DUV lithography and to pass his skills to younger engineers. 

Using DUV, TSMC’s yields of 14nm and 7nm chips are 95-96% and 80%, respectively. Semiconductor Manufacturing South China Corp (SMSC), a SMIC subsidiary, has claimed that the yield of its 14nm chips reached 95% but it has never disclosed the yields of smaller chips.

Citing some analysts, Reuters estimated that SMIC’s 7nm process has a yield rate below 50%.

Read: Yield and cost in doubt if Huawei revives 5G chips

Read: Korean chips deflate Huawei phone’s purity bubble

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3