Chokepoint Consortium: Chinese Experts on Confronting American Pressure

Publication: China Brief Volume: 23 Issue: 22

Professor Chen Jin delivering a keynote address at Tsinghua University on accelerating the development strategy for implementing an innovation drive. (Source: Tsinghua University)

News broke this September that Huawei released a new 5G-capable phone produced with domestic chip technology reportedly in contravention of US export controls. While experts disagree to what extent this new product represents a true domestic breakthrough, it serves as an important symbolic win for a nation-wide effort by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to overcome restrictions imposed by the United States (SCMP, September 6; SCMP, September 30). Concerns about becoming technologically independent have by now become an enduring thrust of PRC leadership’s strategic thinking. Just this week, President Xi Jinping visited the Shanghai Science and Technology Innovation Exhibition in order to promote the city’s importance to this mission (People’s Daily, November 29).

The seeds of China’s self-reliance strategy were planted many years ago and gained real momentum when the United States began scrutinizing Huawei. That happened when Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou (孟晚舟) was arrested in Vancouver in December 2018, accelerating tensions over the Chinese telecommunications giant (CNET, September 30, 2021). The leadership in Beijing quickly realized that not only were Huawei sales in the United States becoming near impossible, but also that the company might soon find it difficult to get their hands on American technology. The United States would exploit—as party leaders would refer to it—one of China’s “chokepoints.” The Chinese government needed help, fast.

NSFC Funds Expert Response Team

In April 2019, the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) dispatched a call for applications for a special grant. The project, funded through the foundation’s emergency management program was titled “A study on pathways toward breakthroughs in our country’s key and core technology ‘chokepoint’ problem” (NSFC, April 24, 2019). The program’s aims were to “provide timely analysis and policy recommendations for high-level party and government decision making” by conducting “research on ‘hot’ and ‘difficult’ issues.” Within less than a month of the grant’s posting, Huawei was placed on the Department of Commerce Entity List (Federal Register, May 21, 2019).

The Department of Management Science at the NSFC has a track-record of quickly responding to current events. For instance, in 2017, after President Donald Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement, the department issued a call for applications to assess “The Impact of the United States’ Withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change Agreement on Global Climate Governance and China’s Response Strategy.” President Trump pulled out of the agreement on June 1; by June 23, a public call for proposals was posted on the website (NSFC, June 23, 2017). A similar call was issued within weeks of the Chinese government’s acknowledgement of the COVID-19 outbreak (NSFC, February 26, 2020).

The “chokepoint” grant went to a consortium of six lead scholars who managed dozens of researchers with expertise in innovation studies. The project was divided into six parts: one general topic and five sub-topics dealing with more specific issues such as the role of military-civil fusion in addressing chokepoints. The general project had 250,000 Renminbi ($35,000) to work with, while 160,000 RMB ($22,000) was allocated to the smaller sub-topics (NSFC, April 29, 2020). The grantees had one year to complete their work.

The lead project, which was also the largest, went to Chen Jin (陈劲), a professor based at Tsinghua University Technology Innovation Research Center, a well-regarded Chinese innovation think-tank. Professor Chen is an influential figure in Chinese debates on science and technology policy and his views are regularly solicited by government and corporate players in China. He is also a prolific writer, whose bibliography includes a recently published book titled “National Strategic Science” (Science Net, July 28). He sits on the education committee of the Chinese Academy of Engineering and on the science and technology committee management department of the Ministry of Education (Tsinghua University; 7th Science and Technology Commission of the Ministry of Education, accessed November 27).

Chen regularly engages in public discourse on US-China tech competition including writing op-eds for the People’s Daily. For instance, he has written articles extolling the benefits of collaborative research for developing domestic version of chokepoint technologies and emphasizing the centrality of talent to China’s self-reliance drive (People’s Daily, May 23, 2019; People’s Daily, October 12, 2020).

Surveying The Chokepoint Research

At least one paper that Chen Jin and his co-authors published maps out systems for how various stakeholders—both government and non-governmental—would weigh in on the process for determining and then coordinating work on chokepoint technologies. Such a system would integrate top-level coordination as well as establish a S&T national security strategy, including an early-warning system. [1] The paper also says that China’s current “scientific and technological organization model” is unable to carry out the solutions needed to make progress on self-reliance including chokepoints. It further argued that coordination across multiple departments was inadequate and that a “higher-level national scientific and technological decision-making and leadership system” needed to be erected to rise to the task. In many ways, this thinking foreshadowed the creation of the Central Commission for Science and Technology established in early 2023. While the exact membership of this commission is still unknown, such political constructs usually involve high-level officials from different Chinese ministries, thus enjoying a great deal of latitude to coordinate policy across multiple ministries.

One of the other project leads is Zhang Zhihe (张治河), an expert of innovation studies and former dean of the international business school at Shaanxi Normal University. He is not as high-profile as Chen Jin, though he worked on China’s most high-profile chokepoint—high-end semiconductors. According to a project summary posted on a Shaanxi Normal University department website, his research on China’s integrated circuit industry happened in close consultation with key Chinese companies in the chip sector (Shaanxi Normal University, accessed November 27). Throughout the entire project, researchers were in “close communication and collaboration” with the Hubei Semiconductor Industry Association, Yangtze Memory Technologies Corp. (YMTC), and Wuhan Xinxin Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp. (XMC).

Their work produced the following recommendations. Noting that many foreign high-end chip makers were reinvesting their profits into R&D, companies such as YMTC were not there yet. To this day, YMTC is not able to deploy its own money and needs government injections of cash to keep pace—earlier in 2023, the company received $7 billion in state backing (Yahoo News, March 2). Second, talent is everything. China needed to build a pool of talent, including by expanding and implementing talent programs. Third, China’s indigenous innovation drive would only thrive if both government and industry forces were unleashed. This included “effective and targeted collaboration between universities and enterprises.” The fourth recommendation proposed “five-pronged attack mechanisms” for escaping its chokepoints, including for “strategy research, innovation competition, coordination of key tasks, resource deployment, and organizational assurances.” The last item refers to the policy coordinating systems in place to ensure follow-through. Finally, the report emphasizes the importance of basic science and recommends action items for the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Shaanxi Normal University, accessed November 27).

The summary claims that the project produced reports read by some of China’s highest-level decision makers (Shaanxi Normal University). In total, eight high-level CCP officials appraised the reports including three at the Hubei Provincial vice-gubernatorial level, and another report noted as “confidential” was presented to Vice Premier Liu He (刘鹤), who was charged with China’s economy and also served on the Small Leading Group for Science and Technology (State Council, July 28, 2018).

In addition to direct interactions with Chinese leadership, Zhang’s grant also spun off a handful of academic articles which give insight into the approaches with which China’s experts are experimenting. Many of the ideas recur regularly in papers produced by different consortium members. For instance, Zhang published a paper advocating for various practices already employed in technology foresight analysis in countries such as Japan or the United States, proposing a framework for identifying chokepoint technologies. His approach blends analysis of datasets such as patents and the Delphi survey method, which uses structured questionnaires of relevant experts (Journal of Shaanxi Normal University, August 4, 2020).

Another paper co-authored by Zhang employs TRIZ, a Russian acronym that stands for “Theory of Inventive Problem Solving,” an approach to innovation developed by Soviet engineers. The paper also looks at past examples of technology and trade competition, most notably between Japan and the United States in the second half of the 20th century. It notes, for example, that while Japan was an American ally at the time, China is not. Crucially, the article reasons that Japan ultimately gave in to pressure from the United States before enduring a long period of economic stagnation. Meanwhile, Beijing is standing up to Washington with the help of “self-reliance.” The paper concludes with recommendations to develop “cross-industry linkages,” reasoning that critical technologies will not be developed in China by any one research institution or company but instead by groups or “platforms” that can attract different kinds of talent. [2]

The Policy Impact of Chokepoint Research

Some of these ideas—whether by way of this consortium or other forums—appear to have embedded themselves in Chinese innovation policy-making. It is likely that they were already being considered and the work of these researchers merely offered additional support. For instance, the Ministry of Education announced in early 2019 it was going to create a series of research platforms, which it has proceeded to do in the years since—including for high-end chip R&D (Ministry of Education, February 22, 2019). The goal of these platforms is to attract talent and bring together disparate actors to work on one specific task.

Zhang’s paper also recommends emphasizing the importance of “all kinds of laboratories and engineering centers.” These are terms too broad to connect to any particular program, though so-called “engineering research centers” were indeed reformed to focus on chokepoints. Also in line with the recommendations noted earlier, these centers are geared toward university-company cooperation. However, those changes were already underway by the time this paper was published in 2021 (ASPI The Strategist, September 22, 2022).


China’s semiconductor industry has clearly scored mixed results, regardless of how some of these ideas have embedded themselves in practice. In 2022, China’s so-called “Big fund,” the country’s chief investment vehicle for boosting domestic semiconductor development, was plagued by corruption investigations (Sina Finance, March 22). Despite this, in a challenge to US technology export restrictions, YMTC reported in late 2023 that it had developed the world’s leading 3D NAND memory chip (SCMP, October 26). The success of US export controls in stunting technological advances in targeted technologies such as high-end chips will depend in part on how ideas by Chinese experts such as Chen Jin and Zhang Zhihe are implemented.

The author would like to thank the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation for providing research support in the form of the 2021/22 German Chancellor Fellowship.


[1] Chen, Jin 陈劲; Zhu, Ziqin 朱子钦. “Guanjian hexin jishu ‘qia bozi’ wenti tupo lujing yanjiu” 关键核心技术“卡脖子”问题突破路径研究 [Breakthrough pathways for key and core susceptible to ‘chokepoints]. Chuangxin keji 创新科技 20 (2020) online.

[2] Zhang, Zhihe 张治河; Gao, Zhongyi 高中一; Tan, Runhua 檀润华; Sun Lijie 孙丽杰. “Tupo ‘qia bozi’ jishu de siwei moshi——jiyu TRIZ de sheji” 突破“卡脖子”技术的思维模式——基于TRIZ的设计 [Conceptual Model for making breakthroughs in ‘chokepoint’ technologies—based on the TRIZ design]. keyan guanli 科研管理 43 (2022) online.