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Boardroom drama shakes China’s biggest chipmaker SMIC

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When Liang Mong-song threatened to quit as co-chief executive of China’s largest chipmaker, it was an extraordinary moment even for the notoriously hot-tempered industry veteran.

The departure of Mr Liang, 68, who joined Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp in November 2017, would have amounted to declaring defeat in his quest to help China’s largest chipmaker catch up with international rivals such as Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp and Samsung Electronics.

Last month, what appeared to be a resignation letter by Mr Liang circulated on Chinese social media, hitting SMIC’s shares. Mr Liang appears to be staying — he was included in SMIC’s latest public list of board members and executives, dated December 31. According to people close to him, negotiations are ongoing within management over resources and the company’s future focus.

But the episode highlighted how China’s strategy of building a self-sufficient, world-class semiconductor manufacturing industry is heavily dependent on engineers and executives poached from Taiwanese competitors.

Taiwanese talent has been the lifeblood of China’s chip sector since Richard Chang, an industry executive brought up in Taiwan, founded SMIC in 2000 and hired a team of engineers from TSMC, the world’s largest contract chipmaker.

Mark Li, a Hong Kong-based analyst at investment bank Bernstein, estimates that “easily hundreds, maybe thousands, and if you include semiconductor design, maybe even tens of thousands” of Taiwanese staff now work in China’s chip industry.

China needs that expertise to help it run fabrication plants and develop more advanced process technology, which Taiwan has perfected.

Mr Liang is one of the industry’s most senior and technologically brilliant executives, according to former colleagues and analysts, following lengthy stints at TSMC and South Korea’s Samsung. He has also significantly accelerated SMIC’s technological prowess, taking mass production of chips from 28 nanometres to under 10nm in just over three years. That represents a significant leap in the miniaturisation of semiconductor technology that took rivals much longer to master.

Obsessive dedication

People who know Mr Liang attribute this success to his almost obsessive dedication to technology. That has earned him respect but also frequently sparks conflict with colleagues. “We are moved by his enthusiasm for work,” said one engineer at SMIC.

“He is very strict on the technology, very rigorous. His requirements are very high,” said Charles Hsu, chairman of Taiwanese semiconductor company eMemory and a friend of Mr Liang. “He is like: ‘This is the requirement. You need to meet this. There is no negotiation.’ But if [you use] this personality to deal with other people, then it is very difficult.”

As the US tries to block China’s development of advanced chip manufacturing through sanctions and export bans, that kind of expertise is more important than ever. “China’s demand for semiconductor executives and engineers from Taiwan will increase. They will poach even more aggressively,” said a western expert who follows the industry on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

The US has blocked supplies of equipment SMIC needs for chip fabrication with processes more advanced than 10nm — exactly the area Mr Liang is developing at the group.

In response, China has focused on expanding manufacturing capacity for older chip technologies and reducing its dependence on foreign software and machinery. Last month, SMIC unveiled a joint venture with two Chinese state funds that will invest $7.6bn in a new fabrication plant for more mature chips, which the company classifies as 28nm or older.

Line chart of SMIC's share price in HK$ showing Sanctions and executive drama hit SMIC's stock

But that pivot represented a setback for Mr Liang. He has had frequent disagreements over strategy with his Chinese co-chief executive Zhao Haijun, given that Mr Liang’s remit has been to help SMIC catch up technologically with its rivals. People directly familiar with SMIC said any strategic shift that redirects resources away from that goal would undermine Mr Liang’s position.

“The entire industry’s direction this year is not in line with the advanced process technology [Mr Liang] has been pushing these years,” said one SMIC engineer.

Describing the Taiwanese working at Chinese chip companies as “mercenaries” who jumped ship for much higher pay, a former TSMC executive said senior officers such as Mr Liang carried a responsibility to pursue influence and resources for the junior Taiwanese managers and engineers they bring with them.

“In that situation, he has to fight — not only for himself but also for his people,” the person said.

Resignation threat

In his letter to the board last month, Mr Liang blamed his threat to resign on SMIC’s failure to consult him on the hiring of Chiang Shang-yi, his former boss at TSMC, as deputy chairman. “I think you probably no longer need me to work hard and fight for the company’s future,” he wrote.

When Mr Chiang retired as TSMC executive vice-president for research and development in 2006, Mr Liang was passed over as his successor and subsequently left to join Samsung. SMIC has not explained its rationale for hiring Mr Chiang.

People who know Mr Liang said he viewed the top job at SMIC as a chance to lead extraordinary advances in technology — an opportunity he felt he had previously been overlooked for at TSMC.

“If he really quits SMIC now, the mission he has committed to so passionately will have failed,” said the former TSMC official.

That could spell a broader failure for Chinese efforts to build a chip manufacturing industry on Taiwanese talent.

“Many Taiwanese companies, first and foremost TSMC, have [now] added legal and financial obstacles against people leaving for Chinese rivals,” he said. “It is nearly impossible that there would be another Liang Mong-song.”

Additional reporting by Qianer Liu in Shenzhen



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Narendra Modi’s popularity slips as Covid crisis hammers India

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Narendra Modi’s popularity has fallen during India’s deepening Covid crisis, according to an opinion poll, as the country reports more than 400,000 daily infections in a brutal second wave.

The prime minister’s approval rating fell to 65 per cent on May 4, down from 74 per cent at the end of March, according to Morning Consult, the US data company — the lowest level since the agency began tracking Modi’s rating in August 2019.

The Indian leader’s disapproval rating also rose to its highest level since the tracker was launched, climbing to 29 per cent from 20 per cent.

Modi’s approval rating remained high compared with other global leaders, but the country’s health and humanitarian crisis has taken a toll.

The prime minister has a strongman reputation but has been accused of indifference in the face of the Covid-19 disaster as he campaigned in state elections even as the outbreak worsened.

“One of the things that Modi has really been good at is perception management. He’s always been very good at messaging,” said Ronojoy Sen, senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies in Singapore. “This is the first time I would say that his messaging has been awry.”

India’s death toll from the second wave has reached about 4,000 people per day © AP

Modi’s government has sought to deflect blame for the calamity on to state governments and the public for failing to follow pandemic protocols.

As deaths have risen, Harsh Vardhan, the health minister, has also cited official data to boast that India’s fatality ratio was lower than those of richer countries.

However, in a stinging letter to Modi on Friday, Rahul Gandhi, leader of the opposition Congress party, sharply criticised the government for a “lack of a clear and coherent Covid and vaccination strategy as well as hubris in declaring premature victory”.

The letter called for more decisive action to control the spread of the virus, as well as greater scientific tracking of the virus and its mutations.

“Allowing the uncontrollable spread of this virus in our country will be devastating not only for our people but also for the rest of the world,” Gandhi wrote, adding that India was a fertile ground for the virus to mutate into “a more contagious and a more dangerous form”.

India reported a record 414,188 infections and 3,915 deaths on Thursday. There have been more than 234,083 confirmed deaths from the disease in the country.

However, most experts believed the figures severely undercounted the magnitude of the crisis because of a lack of testing, especially in small towns and rural areas.

“Right now, data is very corrupted,” Gautam Menon, a professor of biology at Ashoka University, told a recent seminar. “It’s good in some states and it’s very bad in other states.”

Many epidemiologists believe India’s latest outbreak is set to peak in the coming weeks and caseloads will gradually fall, partly helped by lockdowns implemented by some state governments.

The country’s vaccination campaign is losing momentum, however, because of an acute shortage of jabs. The Modi government has been accused of failing to adequately plan its inoculation campaign.

India administered 1.6m vaccines on Thursday and the seven-day moving average of daily vaccinations has fallen to 1.4m, down from a peak of 3.6m in mid-April.

Many Indians were incensed to see Modi boasting of the huge sizes of crowds gathered for his recent election rallies in West Bengal state as the country struggled to access life-saving drugs, hospital beds, oxygen and vaccines.

The prime minister’s Bharatiya Janata party lost its bid to seize power from the Trinamool Congress party in Sunday’s election despite Modi’s efforts.



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Africa celebrates suspension of Covid vaccine patents

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African health officials were on Thursday celebrating what one called a “bold and wonderful” breakthrough after the Biden administration threw its weight behind a temporary suspension of intellectual property rights on Covid-19 vaccines.

African Union officials hope that at least three countries — South Africa, Senegal and Rwanda — will develop the capacity to produce vaccines for the continent, including the mRNA-type vaccines that emerged as an innovative technology against Covid-19.

John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, welcomed the US administration’s backing of an IP waiver, a position that is supported by dozens of developing countries led by South Africa and India.

It would, he said, “definitely be a great influence to facilitate the mRNA manufacturing agenda”, adding that there are “very focused discussions” about producing vaccines on the continent.

South Africa has some of the continent’s most advanced vaccine knowhow, including Aspen, a Durban-based company that plans to “finish and fill” — though not make from scratch — 300m doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine this year. The Pasteur Institute in Dakar, Senegal, also has vaccine-producing experience, making small quantities of yellow fever jabs each year.

John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, welcomed the Biden administration’s backing of an IP waiver © Zacharias Abubeker/FT

In addition, Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, suggested Kigali could become a vaccine hub. “It is important for Africa to forge public-private partnerships for vaccine manufacturing on our continent,” he said last month, adding that Africa needed to accelerate a continental approach to medicines regulation. “Vaccine equity cannot be guaranteed by goodwill alone,” he said, adding that it was time for African countries to stop “being sorry for ourselves” and act.

Africa is extremely dependent on India for its vaccine production, a weakness that has been exposed by a temporary Indian government ban on the export of Covid-19 jabs. Less than 1 per cent of Africans have received a single dose of Covid-19 vaccine and new supplies have all but dried up.

Officials warned there was still a long way to go before African manufacturers could start production. “The fact that the US has indicated it is willing to waive IP rights does not mean that it is actually going to happen,” said Ayoade Alakija, co-chair of the Africa Vaccine Delivery Alliance, who anticipated pushback from pharmaceutical companies and perhaps other countries in the EU and elsewhere.

The first step, said Rebecca Enonchong, a Cameroonian technology entrepreneur and board member of the World Health Organisation Foundation, was to “ensure the patent issue was not an issue”. But even then, she said, it would take time to build up the physical and skills capacity necessary to make mRNA vaccines. There is also a global shortage of vaccine inputs, including nucleotides, enzymes and lipids as well as of vials, caps and syringes. “I think it is unlikely that we will be able to ramp up for this pandemic,” Enonchong said.

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, chair of Biocon, a Bangalore-based biotech company, said she did not see IP as the biggest obstacle. “Today, everybody is talking about patents, patents and patents. Even if they don’t enforce patents, how many people can produce Moderna vaccines at scale?” she said, referring to one of the mRNA vaccines.

Building manufacturing capacity in the developing world was “the next big issue”, said Fatima Hassan, founder of the Health Justice Initiative, a South African campaigner for access to vaccines. There had been at least 50 applications already to a WHO hub for transferring mRNA technology, she said, which “indicates that there is definitely interest around the world”.

Two decades ago, South Africa led the battle, along with Brazil, against pharmaceutical companies’ defence of patents on HIV medicines. Legal victories finally forced companies to slash prices of antiretroviral drugs for developing countries, but not before millions of people had died of the disease. South African diplomats pressing for the temporary suspension of patents on Covid-19 vaccines said that “passing this waiver makes ethical, epidemiological, and economic sense”.

Additional reporting by Amy Kazmin in New Delhi



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A harrowing brush with Covid as India is ravaged

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As a foreign correspondent, my job is to tell India’s stories, not be part of them. But when I started feeling feverish while writing an article about Covid-19 vaccine policy last month, I had a gut feeling that the Sars-Cov-2 virus had found me.

I hoped it was exhaustion that I’d sleep off but the next day, still feverish, I was urged to take a Covid test. A leading diagnostic lab chain, which earlier had run an efficient home-testing service, had stopped answering its phones and responding to online requests. But a doctor friend persuaded one of the lab’s phlebotomists to collect my sample. Two days later, the results confirmed I was part of the ferocious coronavirus wave battering India and pushing its healthcare system to breaking point.

Over the following days, my physical symptoms remained mild. But it was still harrowing to be sick from a notoriously unpredictable virus knowing that drugs, hospital beds and oxygen were scarce. I suffered constant anxiety knowing I’d struggle to get medical help if I took a turn for the worse.

I quickly discovered that I’d been so focused on avoiding infection that I had no clue what to do once sick. A friend connected me to a Kolkata-based infectious disease specialist, who felt I was at low risk for severe illness. I’d had the first dose of a Covid vaccine 10 days before my fever started. But the doctor urged me to treat the illness aggressively from the start, given the chaos at hospitals.

He prescribed the antiviral drug, favipiravir, now undergoing clinical trials in the UK as a potential Covid-19 therapy but already approved in India for emergency use. Many of his patients had taken it, he said, and none suffered severely, including people in their 90s.

Normally, I’m reluctant to medicate. I knew favipiravir’s effectiveness as a coronavirus treatment wasn’t yet scientifically validated. But with hospitals turning away ailing patients, the logic of taking an experimental drug made sense. The challenge, I discovered, was to get hold of it.

I called five pharmacies, but all had run out of stock. A friend called six more to no avail. I panicked — the doctor wanted me to start the drug fast and Delhi was hours from the start of a weekend curfew. Then a friend, who’d heard I was Covid-19 positive, called.

“I’m looking for this drug,” I told her. “Any idea where I can get it?” She said she’d check. It turned out that people with foresight had prepared small emergency drug stashes. Her friend had such a stash and was willing to share it.

I was elated to get the pills to start treatment that night. But it wasn’t enough for the prescribed course. Days later I spent hours calling pharmacies in an unsuccessful hunt for more, before finally begging an industry friend to help.

My difficulties pale in comparison with the desperation, anger and grief beyond my sickroom. My Twitter feed was filled with pleas for hospital beds, oxygen cylinders, the antiviral remdesivir, plasma or a place in an intensive care unit. Top hospitals begged on Twitter for refills of dwindling oxygen supplies. Friends and many professional contacts were fighting for their lives. Doctor friends were weeping with impotent rage.

There was much grim news of death. A former Indian ambassador died after hours waiting in a hospital parking lot for admission; inpatients whose oxygen ran out; a top politician’s 34-year-old son, young journalists. Crematoriums struggled with an unprecedented flow of bodies.

I decided I had to tune out of the unfolding crisis, to ensure my physical recovery and to protect my mental health. I stopped checking Twitter. Newspapers piled up, unread.

Once I felt better and tuned back, I saw Narendra Modi’s government had cynically expanded eligibility for vaccination to all over the age of 18, despite an acute shortage of jabs.

And with thousands dying daily, often for want of medical help, the health minister was callously citing dubious official data to claim India’s Covid fatality rate was lower than richer countries — hardly consolation to grief-stricken families.

Today, I’ve recovered from my encounter with the virus. It will take far longer to get over the trauma of watching this calamity engulf the place I call home.

amy.kazmin@ft.com



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