Full original title: “Emergency Measures”: The Mao-era computer development strategy illuminates the path forward for Huawei out of their difficult situation.
I first read this article in 2019. It was published immediately after sanctions on Huawei were announced, and it’s been stuck in my mind ever since. It was harsh and it was critical, but it focused on the path forward, and what was to be done. On the whole, the article has aged extremely well — the author’s recommendations largely match what has been implemented by the government. At the same time, the author would surely agree that Huawei and other domestic firms have far exceeded the expectations that we had of them in 2019 and 2020.
This article encapsulates what I deeply appreciate about Utopia [乌有之乡] and its writers: they’re never afraid to criticize, but they’re always focused on the way forward, and draw their inspiration from past successes and victories. There’s much to learn here for us.
— S. F.
- Huawei’s Quandary
- “Emergency Measures”: The Foundation of China’s Computer Industry
- The Real Achievements of China’s Mao-Era Computer Industry
- First Strategic Wisdom from Mao-Era Computer Industry: A Complete Technological Ecosystem
- Second Strategic Wisdom from Mao-Era Computer Industry: Independent R&D and Technological Introduction
In 1956 Premier Zhou forcefully stated: “Solely relying on the power of one department we cannot produce a computer, but under the leadership of the Party Central Committee and the State Council, centralizing the entire country’s strength, could it not be done?” On May 20th of that same year, the Scientific Planning Commission officially submitted their “Emergency Measures” to the State Council for consideration, and on July 5th the Commission officially released the text of the “Four Emergency Measures.”
On the evening of 22 May 2019, the BBC reported that ARM UK had asked its employees to stop “all valid contracts, support rights and any pending cooperation” with Huawei and its subsidiaries in order to comply with the recent U.S. trade ban. Although ARM is not an American company, the company’s designs contain “U.S.-origin technology” and thus are still affected by the U.S. ban. Additionally, Microsoft announced that it would no longer support Huawei products — a devastating blow to the sales of Huawei laptops, which had secured a firm third place in global sales.
As ARM announced their supply cut-off, Huawei announced that TSMC would continue to supply Huawei, but then quickly deleted the post. A little bit of digging revealed that it was a repost of old news that predated the sanctions announcement. Huawei is clearly under siege, and TSMC might be the next domino to fall.
As the global hegemon puts Chinese enterprise under pressure, can the national government merely stand idly by and watch?  Learning from our past bitter experiences, it’s necessary to review Chairman Mao-era foundational computing development strategies as well as our blunders and missteps over the last thirty years.
The below text is extracted from my article “How Far Can Huawei Go Without The People’s Patriotism?”, written in response to Huawei’s CEO Ren Zhengfei’s objection to “inciting national pride” a few days ago. The article was originally published on the Grassroots Journal on Weibo, but was later taken down, so those who have read it can skip the below section:
Factual analysis leads this author to believe that Ren is overly optimistic in many aspects.
Of Huawei’s 92 core suppliers, the United States accounts for 36, Japan 11, and Taiwan 10. Aside from the 25 mainland based ones and the 2 in Hong Kong, the rest are all in countries and regions where the U.S. can exert influence or control. In accordance with the U.S. government’s directive, U.S. chip giants Intel, Qualcomm, Xilinx, and Broadcom have informed their employees that they will not supply Huawei until further notice.
After the U.S. sanctions announcement, the president of Huawei’s HiSilicon sent a letter to their employees, saying that “the spare tires built in the past must now be used immediately.” But Huawei’s “spare tires” also seem to face a great threat. Huawei’s current 4G and 5G carrier business is already bottlenecked. The consumer-facing business has overtaken the base-station selling business to become Huawei’s mainstay, and currently accounts for half of its revenue. The core of Huawei’s consumer business is cell phones, and more than half of Huawei phones use its own HiSilicon Kirin chips.
Kirin chips use the architecture of the British company ARM (Qualcomm and Apple also use this architecture). Although Huawei previously received a permanent license for the ARM v8 architecture, this does not mean that ARM will not withdraw this license due to pressure from the United States in the future.
Additionally, Huawei’s Kirin chips are produced by TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., Ltd.), and both Kirin 980 and 985 chips currently use TSMC’s 7 nanometer (nm) process. TSMC is investing in older generation 12 and 16 nm production lines on the mainland. Despite Huawei’s request earlier this year that TSMC move its newer production lines to the mainland, TSMC’s next-generation state-of-the-art 3 nm and 5 nm production lines are planned to be built in the U.S.
As the only companies with 7 nm technology are Intel, Samsung, and TSMC, it isn’t surprising that their major shareholders are all backed by American capital. And even more critically, TSMC and Samsung are part of NATO’s technology embargo alliance — the Wassenaar Arrangement system. Therefore TSMC’s process technology cannot be ceded to any other companies, countries, or institutions without the express permission of the United States. Even TSMC’s establishment of overseas wafer fabricators (fabs) is subject to review under the terms of the Wassenaar Arrangement. If the U.S. wants to completely kill Huawei, they can achieve this by asking TSMC to comply with U.S. sanctions.  Therefore, the hashtag “TSMC hold strong!” on Weibo is just wishful thinking.
Some people think that even if Huawei is cut off from Samsung or TSMC, they can simply utilize local producer SMIC, but don’t forget that SMIC is currently only on a 28 nm mature chip fabrication process. Its 14 nm process is not fully online, let alone 7 nm. Moreover, SMIC has signed technology transfer and licensing agreements with companies such as Invensas in the U.S., and is still subject to the U.S. sanctions regime to a certain extent.
This is the result of our years-long “Market for Technology”  strategy. The brutal truth is that, in order to survive, Huawei needs the very “national pride” that Ren so deeply abhors!
Huawei, as a manufacturer at the tail end of the electronics industry supply chain, is reliant on multiple foreign companies that control key technology links in the supply chain. The purpose of these foreign companies is still to make money, and these companies don’t actually want Trump the madman to kill Huawei. Rather, they want to use Huawei as a bargaining chip, for the United States to blackmail China. At the current time, Huawei still has roughly a year’s worth of chip inventory to survive this difficult phase of U.S.-China negotiations.
Even if Huawei runs out of chip inventory and the U.S. government decides it’s willing to “kill the fish even if the nets are destroyed,”  Huawei could still give up the overseas markets under the long-arm jurisdiction of the U.S. and focus solely on the domestic market. After “the fish die off and the nets are broken,” Huawei could completely disregard the ARM licensing agreement domestically, so long as other domestic companies like SMIC are willing to tear up their technology transfer and licensing agreements with the United States to provide Huawei with 14 nm process fabricated chips.
This would still mean that Huawei has to use an older generation of chip fabrication technology to produce its own chips, which would produce phones with slightly inferior performance. Whether these products sell domestically depends entirely on the “national pride” and “patriotic enthusiasm” of the people — on whether Chinese people are willing to “vote with their wallet.” Will they seek foreign phones with Qualcomm chips with better — although arguably insubstantially better — performance? Or will they support Huawei by choosing Huawei phones?
The U.S. strangulation of Huawei is a local, limited economic war; a surgically precise strike against a Chinese company. Although the United States cut off supplies to Huawei, they haven’t yet cut off supplies to other Chinese companies. The broader political and economic landscape remains unchanged. Ren is averse to “national pride,” but if there is no “people’s sentiment” Samsung and Apple don’t even need to lift a finger: foreign chipmakers need only use China’s other cell phone assemblers such as Vivo, Oppo, or Xiaomi, and that alone would be enough to kill a national enterprise like Huawei. During the 80s, did our civil aviation industry not kill the domestically produced Shanghai Y-10 because it wasn’t good enough for them? 
It’s not only the consumer business that needs “national pride” to survive, the operator business is also inseparable from “national pride.” A few days ago the media reported that a certain state-owned operator purchased 5G equipment from Ericsson, and the well-known blogger Tieliu who commented on the matter on Weibo soon went silent. Is this not because the patriotic public has constantly been stigmatized as “Boxers” and “populists” over the years?  Without the pressure of “national pride” even state-owned enterprises could abandon Huawei with impunity.
Google also announced the suspension of their services to Huawei. In response, Huawei’s Yu Chengdong announced that Huawei also has its own “Hongmeng” mobile operating system. In recent history, many so-called “domestic” operating systems simply reskinned foreign mature systems and claimed it as independent research and development, cheating the state out of funds allocated for domestic development. Even Huawei’s “Hongmeng” operating system, which won accolades from the Ministry of Education and the second prize for national technical progress, and putting aside the question of whether it’s ready for use or not, has been called a simple iterative improvement on an old version of Android.  For the vast majority of domestic users who are already familiar with Apple and Android, if not for the sake of “national pride” and “patriotic enthusiasm,” why would they re-familiarize themselves with Huawei’s new system, or stick with Huawei in the long run?
Taking things a step further, given a complete decoupling of the United States and China, were Huawei unable to use ARM’s next-generation architecture, it would have to develop its own architecture. However, the current Android and Apple operating systems are both ARM architecture-only, which means that Huawei’s current self-contained operating system would also need to be completely rebuilt to accommodate the new architecture developed by Huawei.
To summarize: from the chip, to the operating system, to the app ecosystem, the entire stack needs to be rebuilt, which is obviously not something a private enterprise like Huawei can support alone. Without the participation and support of the government, this would be an almost impossible task. Facing competition from foreign, advanced, mature producers; absent industrial policy in support of domestic, independent electronics producers; absent public “Buy Domestic” patriotic enthusiasm; development would be very difficult indeed.
Facing this quandary, we need to recall how, 63 years ago, Revolutionary China developed its computer industry via “emergency measures.”
The first steps and subsequent development of China’s domestic computer industry benefited greatly from the close attention of Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou. After the founding of New China, this ancient country, which was once impoverished and weak, ushered in a scientific and technological Renaissance with the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China attaching great importance to the development of science and technology. In January 1956, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) held a conference on intellectuals, and Premier Zhou presented a report which issued a call to the Party and the country to “march towards modern science.” In his speech on the last day of the conference, Chairman Mao called on the Party to strive to grasp scientific and technological knowledge, and to struggle to quickly catch up with the world’s most advanced levels of science, thus giving encouragement to the country’s workers in science and technology. With the strong support of the state, the relevant parties started the crucial work of developing a domestic computer industry.
After the founding of New China, the electronics industry was managed by the Communications Department of the Military Commission. On 29 October 1951, Zhou Enlai approved the “Report on the Construction of Radio Parts Factory and Electronic Tube Factory” by Wang Zhuan, Director of the Communications Department of the Military Commission and Director of the Telecommunications Industry Administration, expressing his agreement and giving specific recommendations on design, layout, trade negotiations, and other issues. In January 1953, the first Chinese computer research group was established by Hua Luogeng at the Institute of Mathematics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, with the task of “studying the principles and design of electronic computers and experimenting with their main components.” In 1953, the Bureau of Telecommunications Industry finally became the Tenth Bureau of the Second Ministry of Machinery Industry after Premier Zhou’s approval, and a number of electronic factories in the Jiuxianqiao area of Beijing, such as 738, 718 and 774, began the production of computers. China’s computer industry officially had started.
On 10 February 1956, a delegation of Soviet scientists came to China for a short period of time to give lectures and help draw up scientific plans. When Premier Zhou learned about the power of computer-based word processing and parsing functions, as well as their active use in foreign militaries, he immediately expressed a strong sense of urgency, as China’s capabilities were still meager. He believed that China had to make a determined effort to catch up, and that computers had to be linked to the military and applied to industrial production as soon as possible. Luo Peilin  and Ling Ruiji , who had participated in the early development of China’s computer industry, recalled that, when the Premier heard that we did not have the computing capabilities at present, he forcefully stated: “Solely relying on the power of one department we cannot produce a computer, but under the leadership of the Party Central Committee and the State Council, centralizing the entire country’s strength, could it not be done?”
Premier Zhou felt that the development of computer applications in the country’s industrial production and national defense was a very necessary and urgent task, and therefore formulated and proposed an “emergency measure.” The reason why it was defined as an emergency measure is because at that time the visiting Soviet experts helped to develop a significant amount of scientific planning, and it was necessary to delineate the key projects that were “emergency measures” in order to prioritize the necessary work. On 20 May 1956, the Scientific Planning Commission officially submitted “Emergency Measures” to the State Council for consideration, and on 5 July 1956, the Commission officially released the text of the “Four Emergency Measures.” The “Emergency measures” included computers, semiconductors, radio electronics, and automation; four areas where China’s development was still very weak, but which held major strategic value.
On 1 January 1957, following Zhou Enlai’s request, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the General Staff Department of the People’s Liberation Army, and the Second Ministry of Machine Building, signed an “Agreement on Cooperation in the Development of Chinese Computing Technology” as the implementing units of the “Emergency Measures.” The three parties agreed to establish a research base for the development of computing technology by assembling talents in an unconventional way. The organizational principle was “centralization first, then decentralization.” First, experts from the Second Ministry of Machine Building and the army were assembled at the Institute of Computing of the Academy of Sciences to build a general-purpose electronic computer, and then the experts returned to their original units to establish working groups to develop computers.
In 1957, China submitted to the Soviet Union the “List of Projects for Cooperation between the Chinese and Soviet Academies of Sciences,” the first item of which was computing technology. The “Scientific Research on Computing Technology and the Establishment of an Industrial Base” became a major scientific research project in Soviet-Chinese cooperation. This technology transfer covered a full technology ecosystem, including theory, technology, devices and processes, from research and development to production and application, the organizational systems, institutions, and personnel training in all aspects — not just the imitation of a few machines. According to the “emergency measures,” the Chinese Academy of Sciences sent a 20-member internship team to the Soviet Union to study for 18 months. After returning to China, they became the core of computer professionals and discipline leaders domestically, and three key academicians emerged from this group.
Meanwhile, the Institute of Computing Technology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Tsinghua University, Peking University, and the University of Science and Technology of China conducted four training courses in computer science and computational mathematics within six years, training nearly 800 students who became the backbone of the computing industry. In 1958, approved by the Party Central Committee, 287 senior college students who were originally studying automotives, electrical machinery, and management were transferred to Tsinghua University to train in automated control and computers, and other colleges and universities also transferred several students to computer majors. Wang Xuan of the Department of Mathematics at Peking University was one of the aforementioned students. He answered the nation’s call and chose the direction of computational mathematics, and later became a famous mathematician. He invented Chinese character laser phototypesetting technology, became a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, as well as a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering. By 1966, there were over 6,000 students enrolled in computer science programs across all domestic colleges and universities.
In 1959, Sino-Soviet relations deteriorated rapidly, and Khrushchev withdrew all Soviet experts from China, leaving China with very little Soviet technical support.  At that time, the difficulties that the impoverished and technological backwards New China faced were more than a hundred times larger than what Huawei faces today from U.S. sanctions.
Under the technological blockade of the U.S. and the Soviet Union, China could only follow the development route of domestic independent design and production. It was just as Chairman Mao said: “Blockade us. Blockade us for eight or ten years and China’s problems will be solved.”
The “emergency measures” gave full play to the advantages of the national system and the synergy of large groups. Computer science in the New China rapidly developed from a small research group to a professional institute, and Zhongguancun in Beijing became the “cradle of computers.” The “emergency measures” built the electronic computer industry into a new industry covering scientific research, education, industry and national defense in China, and computing technology and computational mathematics were upgraded from mere scientific disciplines to critical national tools.
Some “industrialists,”  in order to justify the poor strategic decision to discard the Shanghai Y-10 civilian aircraft and the model 107 domestic computer, denigrate the Mao era and blame the backwardness of technology then on an overall low level of industrial productivity. But what was the real situation?
In 1958, the model 103 computer, modified from Soviet designs, was developed, and 36 units were produced.
In 1959, the model 104 computer was successfully built, based on the model of the БЭСМ-II computer, which was still under development in the USSR. The birth of the model 103 computer and model 104 computer completed the leap from nothing to something for China’s domestic computer industry. Because of the high starting point provided by advanced Soviet technology, these imitations ended up being second only to the U.S.S.R. in terms of the technological level of their time.
In 1960, after the breakup of Sino-Soviet relations, the model 107 computer, designed by China itself, was developed successfully.
In 1965, China’s first independently developed integrated circuit was created in Shanghai, only five years later than the United States.
In 1972, the Sichuan’s Yongchuan Semiconductor Research Institute realized the leap from small-scale to medium-scale to large-scale integrated circuits. It took the United States 8 years (1960-1968) to move from small and medium scale integrated circuits to medium and large scale integrated circuits, but it took us only 7 years despite the USSR’s blockade — just 4 years after the United States!
During Chairman Mao’s era, due to the tight blockade of advanced technologies by foreign countries to China, the scientific and technical personnel of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the military, colleges and enterprises made thousands of electron tube, transistor and integrated circuit computers with their bare hands, and achieved much in many difficult areas that the country urgently needed, including the “two bombs and one satellite,”  as well as economic statistics, oil production, telecommunications, railway, steel, shipbuilding, water conservancy and other core areas of the national economy. More than 100,000 people were trained for computer research and its applications. These achievements are inseparable from the “emergency measures” formulated by Premier Zhou.
Though there was indeed a stage of “human wave tactics” and “manual building of high technology” in Mao’s time, and though there was a large gap between our manufacturing processes and that of the developed capitalist countries in the West still exists, it is undeniable that the industrial system of New China achieved a transformation from “nothing” to “something.” Breakthroughs in highly integrated, cutting-edge scientific and technological areas such as “two bombs and one satellite,” large aircraft, and electronic computers, allowed us to jumpstart development in many other scientific research fields and industrial sectors, and through the process of iteration and continuous improvement, catching up with developed countries was no longer out of reach. And this was due to the institutional advantages of socialist multi-sectoral collaboration and the selfless dedication of workers and researchers.
To take the aviation industry as an example, the gap between China and the Western aviation industry was 30 years. After the development of the Shanghai Y-10, the gap narrowed to 15 years. If we had not worked on domestic development the gap would only have further widened! Using this 15-year gap to denigrate the Y-10 as backwards is ridiculous. It took the Americans 7 years and 3 months from the successful detonation of the atomic bomb to get to the successful detonation of the hydrogen bomb, while it took China only 2 years and 8 months to do the same. The Boeing 707 first flew in 1954, the Boeing 727 first flew in 1963 — 9 years in between; the Boeing 737, which is still flying today, first flew in 1967, took only 13 years after the 707. If the development of the Shanghai Y-10 had continued, it’s entirely possible that China’s civil aviation industry would already have caught up with the United States. The same is true of our electronic computers, which started from zero but were only 4 or 5 years away from the world’s #1 in the ’70s, the United States.
Unfortunately, after 1984, China’s electronic computer industry went down the wrong path of “Buy Not Build,” undermining the good intentions of Premier Zhou’s “emergency measures” to develop a native computer industry. A whole generation of Chinese computer science workers who had made great efforts to get China to where it was in 1984 were wasted.
What was of great value is that, because we insisted on a policy of independence and self-reliance in the face of the comprehensive technological blockade by the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the development of the computer industry in Mao’s era was not a single-front assault, but a complete layout of the full industrial supply chain, covering complete categories in order to ensure a balanced development of the electronic computer industry. For the sake of brevity, here are just a few examples of key areas.
Photolithography, also known as “mask aligner exposure machining,” is essential for the production of large-scale integrated circuits, and is the basis for the optical and electronic industries that require a high degree of manufacturing and maintenance expertise. What Huawei is most afraid of is not the ARM sanctions, because it already has the ARM v8 license, which will not affect its existing products. What Huawei is most worried about is the potential TSMC sanctions — TSMC is the downstream customer of the lithography giant ASML, and the current domestic lithography technology is so far behind foreign advanced technology that it cannot replace the 7 nanometer production process needed to produce Huawei’s Kirin 980 chips.
During the Mao era, China started its chip lithography process research later than the United States, but 10 years earlier than South Korea and Taiwan. In 1975, just as Taiwan was buying 3-inch fabs from the U.S., the mainland had already completed the development of core DRAM technology.
Lithography started with contact lithography and evolved to projection lithography, which has been in use since then. The United States in the 1950s already had contact lithography, but because the mask and photoresistors repeatedly touched there was too much cross-contamination, thus, the contact machine was later eliminated by the projection machine. In 1973, with a U.S. military investment, the Perkin Elmer company built a projection lithography system; in 1978, GCA launched a truly modern automated wafer stepper lithography system.
China’s first use of photolithography to manufacture integrated circuit chips was in 1965, the year the Chinese Academy of Sciences developed the Type 65 contact lithography machine. In 1970s, Chinese Academy of Sciences began to develop computer-aided lithography masking process; in 1981, CAS’s semi-automatic proximity lithography was successfully developed; and previously in 1979, the 45 Institute of the Ministry of Machine Building and Electronics Industry began the development of step-by-step projection lithography, benchmarked against the 4800DSW launched by the United States in 1978, and was formally developed in 1985, at which time the gap with the U.S. was less than 7 years. And ASML, the lithography giant that began with the transfer of American technology, only was established in 1984.
This is the 7-year gap that “industrialists” use to smear the Chairman Mao-era computer industry. For example, Guancha  published an article titled “40 years ago China could build lithography machines? Complete fabrication!”  mocking the “rudimentary technology” developed during the Mao era, with a tone very similar to what was said in the 1980s. After “Reform and Opening Up,” domestic “experts” took multiple trips abroad, and came back embittered, saying “our country has over 600 semiconductor production plants, but their total annual production of integrated circuits is only equal to 10% of one of Japan’s plants. […] If this were to continue, China’s young scientists would lose the ability to dialogue with the international scientific community.” This totally disregarded the objective fact that American capital had already transferred technology to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan on a large scale in search of cheaper labor and larger markets to capture. It was not because our own ability to develop could not compare with Japan; looking back, we were really misled by this “foreign slave” philosophy. 
After the implementation of the 863 program, the road to large-scale implementation began. A report at the time noted the problems that arose then:
- The production machines were a hodgepodge of brands and specifications. The circuit manufacturer cannot build the type of circuits the machine manufacturer requires and vice-versa.
- The introduction of a large quantity of hardware equipment and instruments did not focus on the parallel introduction of software technology and management. A failure of implementation and lessons learned for the future.
- The cooperation between research and production is not close, and the internal operation processes of production are not smooth.
Later, as we know today, Samsung and TSMC quickly overtook the mainland chip market, and the production of advanced chips and their processes became completely dependent on foreign companies and imports.
If we had insisted on staying the path and iterating on the foundation built during the Chairman Mao era, our photolithography industry and our chip production capabilities would not be in today’s difficult situation.
When it comes to China’s domestic memory industry, it is impossible to not mention the computer memory guru Fan Xinbi. Fan Xinbi studied at the Department of Electrical Engineering at National Central University in Chongqing from September 1940 to January 1945, and attended Stanford University from January 1948 to June 1951, where he received his Ph.D. From April 1952, he was engaged in the research of microwave devices such as the magnetron, ion counter, and ion technology in electrostatic printing, etc. at the Polaroid Corporation. From 1953 to 1954, he joined more than a dozen international students making a secret petition to Premier Zhou Enlai, asking to return to China to help build the New China and to break the blockade of the U.S. government. On 18 September 1954 he boarded a ship to leave the U.S. and return to China. By 1956, he was a member of the National Science Planning Group for Computer and Computational Mathematics and a preparatory member of the Institute of Computing Technology, Chinese Academy of Sciences. In September 1956, he was officially transferred to the Institute of Computing Technology and participated in their early work. He visited the Soviet Union and served as the director of the Institute of Computing of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, primarily responsible for the research and organizational leadership of computer memory.
Despite the challenging domestic situation and equipment shortages, he was able to overcome them and led his team of young researchers to develop the first batch of memory cores for China’s computers: the model 104 computer and the model 119 memory chip. In the development of the model 109C computer he proposed a new drive scheme as well. He also led the research and development of M0s static 1024-bit random access memory devices.
In April 1959, the Institute of Computing of the Chinese Academy of Sciences successfully developed a magnetic core memory with a capacity of 1024 bytes and an access cycle of 32 microseconds, replacing the magnetic drum of the 103 machine and increasing its computing speed 60-fold.
In 1975, Shanghai Radio Factory 14 successfully developed the country’s first 1024-bit memory chip with an integration level of 8820 components, roughly equivalent to the standard abroad; and the end of the 70s, China developed 256 and 1024-bit ECL high-speed random access memory one after another, with the latter reaching the same performance levels as abroad. Additionally, during this period, NMOS 256-bit and 4096-bit, PMOS 1024-bit random memory, one after the other, were developed. In 1983, 16KMOS dynamic memory was successfully developed, and 4KMOS static memory entered small batch production. However, the work that built this strong foundation for China was lost in the mid and late 80s. To this day, more than 95% of our memory chips are imported.
The operating system of a computer manages hardware and software resources, and is thus also a cornerstone of the computer system.
In 1964, the People’s Liberation Army’s Military Institute of Engineering in Harbin successfully developed the first all-transistor computer 441B-I in China, just six years after the first all-transistor computer RCA501 in the United States. The 441B series computer was the first computer with a time-sharing operating system, Assembly language, FORTRAN language, and a standard program library made in China.
In 1974, the country established Project 748, which successfully developed Chinese character communication, Chinese character information retrieval, Chinese character precision illumination, a Chinese character operating system, Chinese character database system, Chinese character tool software, Chinese character full text retrieval system, and Chinese character input and output devices.
By the time Western graphical user interfaces (GUIs) came about with Apple’s Mac OS and Microsoft’s Windows OS circa 1985, China’s computer industry had already abandoned itself and embarked on Lenovo’s “Buy Not Build” path. Windows rapidly entered millions of households in China and became very familiar to all Chinese computer users, with the vast majority of desktop applications built around the Windows ecosystem. If China’s electronic computer industry had continued to take the path of independent development, and spent the energy necessary to continue Project 748, the development of a mature, independent operating system and application ecosystem would’ve by no means been an impossible task.
Let’s take another look at Ren Zhengfei’s “confident” Huawei. Their latest top-of-the-line P30 cell phone uses a Google Android OS, flash memory provided by Toshiba and Samsung, lenses from Taiwan’s Himax, a screen from Samsung (the P30 Pro uses LG and BOE). Huawei’s 5G base stations use switches equipped with the U.S.’s VxWorks OS, chips designed with the U.S. Cadence platform, simulated in U.S. MATLAB software, and PCBs designed with the U.S. Allegro. In this situation, any one of the above links can become a bottleneck at the behest of the U.S.
If you really want to be at the mercy of the United States, you can only start by cultivating capabilities at home and building your own complete “ecosystem.”  For example, Hu Weiwu’s Loongson has already surpassed Huawei’s achievements in the CPU field (although Huawei does System-on-Chip SoCs, which have more things to integrate beyond the CPU). But the CPU is only one part of the whole computer. A remaining hardware, operating system, and application ecosystem has to go along with it. It’s by no means within Loongson’s power to do all of that by itself. Moreover, given the realities of a market economy, it’s unrealistic to ask three-year-old children to box with Mike Tyson on the same stage. The requisite support must come through national industrial policy.
Second Strategic Wisdom from Mao-Era Computer Industry: Independent R&D and Technological Introduction
In his interview yesterday Ren Zhengfei repeatedly emphasized that Huawei is an open enterprise. He once joined the elite in denigrating the Chairman Mao era as “closed,” but was that really the case?
In truth, it is not that we do not want to learn from the West, or to have the advanced technology created by capitalism, but they simply are not willing to share — the United States and the Soviet Union joined forces back then to impose a total technological blockade on us. After the founding of the People’s Republic Chairman Mao never opposed developing economic contacts with capitalist countries nor proposed shutting the door to constructive relations; Chairman Mao pointed out in “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People” that “We must learn from the good experiences of all countries, whether they are socialist countries or capitalist countries,” as well as “Our policy is that we should learn from the strengths of all nations and countries, everything that is useful in politics, economics, technology, literature and art.”
After Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, the saber-rattling relationship between China and the West eased, and China was able to introduce a large number of technologies previously blockaded by the West in industries such as steel and chemicals (the 43 Program). As for the semiconductor industry, although China was never able to introduce semiconductor equipment and technical information from foreign sources on a large scale basis, it was able to purchase a small amount of stand-alone equipment through special channels. After digesting and absorbing these imported technologies, a large number of imitations were made, which helped China push forward and build their own production lines.
Whether it was the introduction of Soviet technical materials in the late 1950s or the purchase of a small amount of advanced equipment in Europe and the United States through special channels in the 1970s, the route of “digestion and absorption, integration, innovation, and application” was followed, and the introduction of foreign technology was used to help accelerate domestic research and development while also simultaneously integrating with our industrial system, thereby increasing the level of China’s domestic development. This is very different from what was done in the 1980s.
A few days ago, Comrade Qian Xuesen’s letter to Wang Shouyun and six other comrades, written on 2 January 1995, was released. We learned more about “Qian Xuesen’s Question,” in which Qian Xuesen asked: “Chairman Mao wants us to innovate. Have we innovated? Are there any important innovations today by our scientists and researchers?” Qian Xuesen cited a series of innovative achievements during Chariman Mao’s era in accordance with Chairman Mao’s advice — why is it that what could be done in Chairman Mao’s time cannot be done today? Comrade Qian Xuesen concluded bitterly, “I think we are too in awe of the foreigners.” Look at the group of senior experts who went abroad to study and came back to bury our domestic computer industry — Comrade Qian Xuesen’s words hit the nail on the head.
In 1965, Chairman Mao returned to Mt. Jinggang, and on 25 May had the following conversation with Zhang Pinghua and Wang Zhuochao:
Why do we take the household responsibility system so seriously? China is a large agricultural country. If the foundation of rural ownership changes, the industrial base of China’s collective economy will be shaken. Who would we sell the products of industry to? Industrial public ownership would also change one day, and the polarization between classes would accelerate. From the first day of imperialism’s existence, they have looked at China’s vast market as an “eat or be eaten” situation. Today in all areas they have the advantage over us. When they attack us from within and without, how can the Communist Party protect the interest of the people, workers, and peasants? How can we protect the development of our own industry and national defense? China is a large country, and a poor country. Will the imperialists really let China become rich and strong? What would they be able to hold over us then? Relying on the breath of others to live, our country will never be safe.
Their capitalism has developed for hundreds of years, it is more mature than socialism. But China cannot go down the capitalist road. China has a large population, many ethnic groups, a long history of feudalism, unequal development between regions, and in recent years, imperialist oppression made the peoples’ lives unbearable and divided. If we engage in capitalism in such conditions, we would only become the slaves of others. The imperialists have advantages in energy, capital, and many other areas. The Americans both cooperate with and exclude the capitalist countries of Western Europe — how could they let a backwards China develop independently and then surpass them? In the past, China could not take the capitalist road. Today, I still say China cannot go down the capitalist road. If we did, we would be sacrificing the fundamental interests of the working people, which is contrary to the mission of the Communist Party. Class and ethnic conflicts in our country would intensify, and if not resolved, would be used by the enemy.
The imperialists will never allow us to truly develop. The difficulties faced by ZTE and Huawei today, are they not another example of the foresight and sagacity of Chairman Mao?
The Mao Zedong era of electronic computer development and its business-strategic experience shows us a bright path out of the Huawei predicament — that is, the return to socialist public ownership; the re-exercise of the advantages of the national system; large regiments; independent self-reliance; a make up of shortcomings; and the reconstruction of a complete electronic computer industry system completely free from capitalist dependence.
The conflict between the United States and China is in full swing. It’s time for another set of “emergency measures.”
 吃瓜 — literally “eating watermelon.” Common slang for being a bystander. — S. F.
 Trading access to the Chinese market for technological knowledge. — S. F.
 That is, if the U.S. sacrifices the profits of American companies that sell to Huawei in order to kill Huawei. — S. F.
 The “Boxer Rebellion” was an 1899 nationalist uprising fought in large part by martial artists — “Chinese Boxers” — against the imperialist Eight-Nation Alliance. Boxers is now used as a derogatory term to describe anti-Western sentiment on the Chinese Internet. — R. D.
 A brand new operating system started from scratch would face the problem that it has to cultivate an entire application ecosystem.
 Deputy chief engineer of the former Ministry of Mechanical Engineering. — S. F.
 Former secretary of the General Branch of the Department of Electrical Engineering of Tsinghua University. — S. F.
 A reference to 工业党, the “Industrial Party”, a loosely defined faction of party members and civilians with a strong focus on technological and industrial development and a lesser focus on ideological principles. [web] — S. F.
 The domestic project for the development of the nuclear bomb and intercontinental ballistic missile (two bombs) and a space satellite (one satellite). — S. F.
 Guancha.cn, 《观察者》, a news website and discussion community that is often associated with the “Industrialists.” — S. F.
 The idea that the best that poor nations can aspire to is working obediently on behalf of rich ones. — R. D.
 The counterpoint here is that it is arguably this same integration with the world’s economy, as both producer and consumer, that has preserved China, thus far, from the kind of economic encirclement that strangled the Soviet Union. The argument today, however, especially in light of changed circumstances, remains very sound! — R. D.