Examining China’s Grand Strategy For RISC-V

Publication: China Brief Volume: 23 Issue: 23

Illustration of China’s chip ambitions. (Source: AI generated image)

On November 24, 2023, DAMO Academy (達摩院; literally “Dharma”), Alibaba’s research division, unveiled three ground-breaking processors rooted in the open-source RISC-V architecture. The Xuantie (玄铁) C920, Xuantie C907, and Xuantie R910 processors promise to accelerate application of RISC-V technology into diverse sectors, from autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence (AI) to enterprise hard drives and network communications (Mydrivers News, November 24). These processors signify a strategic attempt by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to break out of the technological containment led by the United States through leveraging open-source hardware (OSHW). RISC-V products are proliferating around the world at a compound annual growth rate of 40 percent. Projections suggest that by 2030, RISC-V chips could attain a 25 percent market share in the system-on-chip (SoC) sector (WSJ, December 14). RISC-V therefore has a pivotal role in shaping the future of the industry. The Chinese government’s rapid, focused, and coordinated investment in RISC-V suggests that a closer examination of this understudied and emerging technology is warranted, especially in light of the limited policy coordination and discussions around RISC-V in other countries, particularly the United States.

The main insights of the piece are as follows:

  • China believes that it has advantages that allow it to develop a lead in the development and commercialization of RISC-V technology. This is due to its strong research and development sector, particularly clustered in districts of major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen, and the country’s large talent pool of high-skilled workers.
  • China sees RISC-V as part of its wider ambition for technological autonomy and self-sufficiency. This is evidenced through the dominant role of PRC entities, including state-owned companies, in the upper tiers of the RISC-V Foundation, as well as through its numerous policy initiatives at the central and local levels to support China’s push into RISC-V.
  • China’s concerns about dependency on American technology, which causes vulnerable “chokepoints,” have also informed this push to dominate RISC-V. This has been a driver for RISC-V’s development into becoming a competitor to the chip architecture of both ARM and Intel.
  • The PRC’s focus on RISC-V has received little attention from Western governments until recently, but this article suggests that assessments of potential risks to national security are now overdue.

What is RISC-V?

RISC-V stands for “Reduced Instruction Set Computing Five,” and is a type of Instruction Set Architecture (ISA). ISAs functions as an interface between software and hardware, determining how CPUs are controlled by software. One useful analogy frames the ISA as the pedals and user interface between the car (the hardware), and the driver (the software) (Fabricated Knowledge, September 12). RISC contrasts with other ISAs such as CISC (“Complex Instruction Set Computing”) by using a smaller, more efficient set of instructions, which can lead to faster processing speeds, lower power consumption, and easier adaptability to various applications. While the industry is dominated by proprietary ISAs, with Intel’s x86 and ARM providing the leading ones, RISC-V is open source, constituting a long-term challenge to the incumbents—particularly to ARM. In recent years, momentum has been building from major tech giants and specialized firms eager to build products based on RISC-V, which constitutes the first market alternative for many years (WSJ, December 14, 2024).

RISC-V was developed around 2010 as the brainchild of academics David Patterson, Krste Asanović, and their team at the University of California, Berkeley. It was conceived as an alternative to the complexities and proprietary confines of existing ISAs, and built upon foundational research conducted at Berkley in the 1980s, which was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and National Science Foundation (NSF) (ETHW, February 2015).

The RISC-V Foundation was established in 2015 with founding members including the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and US-based multinationals like Google and IBM. It was later joined by a host of Chinese firms, including Huawei and Alibaba. The Foundation—domiciled in Switzerland since 2019 to avoid technology transfer restrictions from the United States—owns, maintains, and freely publishes RISC-V’s intellectual property (Asia Times, December 2022). Its mission statement reads: “RISC-V combines a modular technical approach with an open, royalty-free ISA—meaning that anyone, anywhere can benefit from the IP contributed and produced by RISC-V … RISC-V does not take a political position on behalf of any geography. We are proud to see organizations from around the world working together in this new era of processor innovation” (RISC-V, last accessed December 2023).

Unrestricted access to this ISA has led to a surge in customized processors tailored for specific needs. Companies like Santa Clara-based SiFive, Alibaba, and Shanghai-based StarFive are already developing RISC-V chips for a wide range of applications, including SSD controllers, cloud systems, FPGA systems, and CPUs. Even giants such as Meta are incorporating RISC-V into their AI computing infrastructure (Meta, May 18). But the extent of the technology’s use by Chinese firms, and its importance to China’s overall strategy is understudied.

China’s Perspectives On And Visions For RISC-V

R&D and Talent Advantages

RISC-V provides an opportunity for countries like the PRC to be present at the foundation of a whole host of technological innovations. Chinese experts have seen China’s prowess in research and development, especially in open-source technology, as conducive to capitalizing on RISC-V from the beginning. Wu Yanjun (武延军), chief engineer at the CAS’s Institute of Software, has highlighted China’s advantages: a vast market, a skilled workforce, and diverse application scenarios for RISC-V (ChinaAET, September 9, 2022). Others have pointed out that China should promote open-source education within the university system to leverage its advantages for these emerging technologies and support the PRC’s strategic interests (Wangxin Magazine, June 17).

China has one of the largest bases of tech graduates and seasoned R&D professionals in the world, and as of 2021 has 7.55 million developers active on GitHub, the world’s largest web-based repository source code, primarily used for version control and collaborative software development. It is projected that by the year of 2030, China will surpass the US, securing the top spot (China Daily, August 2022). Quantity matters, and China is set to have an overwhelming edge in terms of skilled human resources. But the PRC’s ambitions also include setting standards, shaping trends, and saturating the open-source ecosystem with Chinese developers and products.

Technological Autonomy and Self-Sufficiency

China’s “dual circulation (双循环)” policy, Xi Jinping’s economic schema for emphasizing domestic consumption and innovation while maintaining openness to international trade is a core part of the PRC’s drive for self-sufficiency and solving the country’s technological “strangleholds (卡脖子)” that put it at risk. RISC-V should be viewed in this context (ChinaAET, July 26). There is increasing demand within the US Congress to restrict RISC-V access to China (Select Committee on the CCP, November 2). This move by Congressional members is framed in Chinese official media as revealing an underlying anxiety that China will soon enjoy technological autonomy. (Global Times, October 24). As the Global Times states, RISC-V is potentially a game-changer for the PRC. It is poised to disrupt the long-standing duopoly of Intel and ARM, and is reducing the United States’s ability to exercise control over parts of the semiconductor industry. Ni Guangnan (倪光南), the leading scientist of the Chinese Academy of Engineering focusing on RISC-V, also emphasizes that “developing open-source technology helps eliminate or alleviate risks such as containment, embargoes, service suspension, supply disruption, and decoupling” (Wangxin Magazine, June 17). There is a clear strategic goal to increase the development of OSHW to lessen the impact of geopolitical tensions and supply chain vulnerabilities, and nurture an environment characterized by self-sufficiency (PerfXLab, May).

China has thus built a formidable innovation ecosystem, developing a range of domestic processors through the concerted efforts of government, academia, and tech giants like Alibaba, Huawei, and Tencent. There are now over 300 companies in China developing products using RISC-V technology (Slkor, March 17, 2022). In 2021, CAS brought the first generation of self-innovated RISC-V cores to market, the “XiangShan (香山)” processor (Github, Accessed December 14). The capabilities of the second XiangShan processor, called “Nanhu (南湖)” released in August last year, allegedly surpasses those of ARM’s Cortex-A76, making it the most powerful open-source core in the world (RISC-V China, May 30).

Shaping The Global Tech Landscape

China under Xi has increasingly sought a larger role on the international stage. Such a desire to better shape the world to its preferences extends to what it sees as critical technologies—including RISC-V. The “14th Five-Year National Informatization Plan (‘十四五’国家信息化规划),” the Party’s current guiding document for digital issues, thus advocates “relevant Chinese institutions and enterprises to actively join international open-source organizations for major core technologies and participate in international standard cooperation and development.” (CAC, December 2021).

The presence of Chinese entities in the RISC-V International Foundation, outnumbering those based in the United States in terms of high-level and strategic members, exemplifies this push. Out of 22 premier-level member units (高级会员单位), 12 are from China and 7 from the United States; and among the 179 strategic members (战略会员单位), 49 hail from China, compared to 41 from the United States (RISC-V, last accessed December 14, 2023). It is unclear what the voting structures are within the foundation, but the PRC appears to have the ability to exercise significant influence through the Chinese state-owned or state-funded entities that manage the Foundation.

There are economic incentives to using RISC-V technology. China is capitalizing on these: In 2022, over 50 percent of the 10 billion RISC-V cores manufactured in the world came from China (China Daily, August 25). Projections from the Foundation suggest that RISC-V chips will surpass 80 billion units by 2025, and and will constitute 28 percent of the Internet of Things (IoT) market (RISC-V, November 7, 2022). Consulting firm Semico Research predicts that while RISC-V only accounted for $80 million of the total $2.2 billion IP market for CPU cores in 2020, it expects this to grow to $687 million by 2027—a rise from 1 per cent to 16 per cent of global market share. While still far from ARM and x86, this increase is nevertheless significant, and can fairly be seen as a serious competitor (Financial Times, November 22, 2022).

National And Local RISC-V Actions

China has been incrementally advancing its involvement with RISC-V technology since 2018. This is reflected in national policies and those of key cities—Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen all have policies to use RISC-V to boost innovations.

In November 2018, China established the China RISC-V Alliance (中国开放指令生态联盟) (CRVA) under CAS, chaired by Ni Guangnan, with the aim to rapidly advance the development of a domestic RISC-V ecosystem (CRVA, last accessed December 2023). In March 2021, China released its “14th Five-Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development and Vision 2035 (国民经济和社会发展第十四个五年规划和2035年远景目标),” officially acknowledging the importance of open-source technology in the development of next-generation chips and AI The plan aims to enhance China’s strategic scientific and technological strength, with a focus on supporting the growth of digital technology open-source communities and improving the legal framework around open-source intellectual property (Xinhua, March 13, 2021). In December 2021, the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission (中央网络安全和信息化委员会) built on this with the “14th Five-Year Plan for National Informatization (“十四五”国家信息化规划).” This underlines the commitment to accelerate the development of domestic and international open-source communities and platforms, constructing a collaborative ecosystem for open-source innovations (CAC, December 2021).

Beijing’s Pioneering Role

In 2021, the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Economy and Information Technology established the Beijing Institute of Open Source Chip (BOSC; 北京开源芯片研究院). With support from the Municipal Science and Technology Commission and the Administrative Committee in Zhongguancun (a major tech hub in the city), the institute has built a collaborative model linking industry and academia, which has been instrumental in developing and applying RISC-V technology (BOSC, last accessed December 2023). The Institute’s deputy director, Su Sen (苏森), believes Beijing can be a global leader in the RISC-V industrial ecosystem by 2030, by fulfilling plans to leverage its concentrated intellectual resources, active capital, and (BeijingGov, August 30). Meanwhile, He Jianwu (何建吾), from the Zhongguancun Administrative Committe, echoed this, confirming that the district would become an industry hub for the development of RISC-V chips and continue providing a top-tier innovation environment for global partners (BeijingGov, August 30). To this end, the city has provided office space, talent services, and public rental housing, and encouraged leading companies and manufacturers to offer a tailored environments for developing RISC-V.

Shanghai And Shenzhen: Innovation Catalysts

Shanghai was the first local government in China to announce a special fund for the development of software and integrated circuits (ICs), establishing the Shanghai Municipal Commission of Economy and Informatization (上海市经济和信息化委员会) in July 2018 to specifically target companies involved in RISC-V-related design and development (The Paper, March 2). Two months later, the Shanghai-led China RISC-V Industry Consortium (CRVIC; 中国RISC-V 产业联盟) was formed for firms and institutions to share resources and know-how (CRIVC, last accessed December 2023).

This proactive stance has led to the clustering of over 1,300 enterprises, attracting nearly 40 percent of the nation’s IC talent (Shanghai Observer, March 5). One firm, VeriSilicon Technology (芯原) has invested 1.3 billion yuan in building a R&D Center to focus on advancing IoT platform research and promoting the RISC-V ecosystem (Lin’gang Group, December 2021). Wu Xiaohua (吴晓华), Deputy Secretary of the CCP Working Committee of the Lin’gang (临港) New Area, recently highlighted its status as a hub for electronic design automation (EDA) enterprises and one of the earliest regions to focus on the RISC-V industry in China, hosting over a dozen RISC-V chip design and numerous RISC-V chip application enterprises. Wu signaled continued policy support in talent recruitment, intellectual property, and application (The Paper, August 28).

The Shenzhen Municipal Government’s engagement with RISC-V extends back to 2014, with the establishment of the Tsinghua-Berkeley Shenzhen Institute (清华-伯克利深圳学院) (TBSI) to integrate resources from academia, Chinese government, and industry (TBSI, last accessed December 13, 2023). In November 2019, TBSI also opened the RISC-V International Open Source Laboratory (RIOS Lab) under the leadership of David Patterson, an American academic who played a pivotal role in the development of the technology. The lab engages in cutting-edge research in RISC-V hardware and software (SIGS, last accessed December 13, 2023). TBSI has also launched a RISC-V Mentorship Program, pairing mentors and project leaders with mentees and interns for 12-week periods (TBSI, last accessed December 13, 2023). The Shenzhen Municipal Development and Reform Commission (深圳市发展和改革委员会) has also recently introduced measures to spur high-quality development in the sector, articulating its aims for breakthroughs in CPUs and GPUs, and for developing specialized chips for AI and edge computing. This has come with substantial incentives: Companies investing over RMB 10 million in chip design are offered up to 20 percent of the R&D investment, capped at RMB 10 million annually; and Shenzhen-based companies achieving chip sales exceeding RMB 20 million can receive rewards up to 15 percent of their annual sales, also capped at RMB 10 million (Shenzhen Gov, Oct 8, 2022).

These coordinated efforts by Shanghai and Shenzhen exemplify a commitment to RISC-V technology within China’s national semiconductor strategy, aiming for global leadership and innovation in this vital technological field.


China’s engagement with RISC-V is a testament to its strategic foresight and ambition to reshape the semiconductor industry, challenging long-established norms and power structures. The increasing influence of Chinese entities in the RISC-V International Foundation is a clear indicator of China’s intention to steer the direction of RISC-V development. This shift in control away from the United States is not merely about technological advancement, but about altering the global tech order. China sees RISC-V as an opportunity to enhance its self-innovation capabilities, foster self-sufficiency, and navigate the complexities of increasing geopolitical tensions.

Dual-use applications of RISC-V technology must also be considered. Chinese experts from the PLA Information Engineering University (中国人民解放军战略支援部队信息工程大学) recently claimed to demonstrate the application of RISC-V in significantly enhancing the efficiency of cryptographic algorithms that could be used in IoT devices. Their experiments achieved a remarkable 700 percent acceleration in the AES algorithm with only a 2 percent increase in hardware resources. [1] This alleged breakthrough raises important considerations for national security, as it exemplifies the potential for RISC-V technology to be adapted by Chinese military entities and operations.

RISC-V presents immense potential for innovation and technological advancement across the planet. But it also brings inherent vulnerabilities. As PRC entities become the predominant manufacturers of electronic hardware in an increasingly digitally-integrated world, the possibility of malign technology being embedded in critical systems at the hardware layer during fabrication, warrants our concern and requires robust countermeasures and resources to investigate and counter potential threats (SCSP, February). China is investing significantly in this technology, but further analysis is needed to assess the PRC’s capabilities in leveraging it in ways that impact the national security of other states. As we navigate this complex terrain, the challenge lies not only in assessing China’s advancements but also in formulating responses to an open-source technology that defies traditional control mechanisms. The repercussions of any actions taken must be carefully weighed to ensure a balanced and effective approach to this new era of technological competition.


[1] Zhang Xiaolei et al., Design and verification of AES cryptographic acceleration engine based on RISC-V. Application of Electronic Technique, 2023, 49(2):39–44.