A new TV show will tell China’s yet-to-be realized path to becoming a semiconductor power

A researcher plants a semiconductor on an interface board during a research work to design and develop a semiconductor product at Tsinghua Unigroup research centre…
A researcher plants a semiconductor on an interface board during a research work to design and develop a semiconductor product at Tsinghua Unigroup research centre…
Image: Reuters/Kim Kyung-hoon
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In recent years, robots and AI have found their way into television shows as China sought to stir public excitement for its high-tech goals. Now, a new TV series being produced in the country will offer a vivid illustration of China’s vision for realizing its long-held dream of becoming self-reliant in semiconductor technology.

A promotional poster for The Silicon Waves(纵横芯海), a 40-episode TV series, was released online in late December, prompting excitement from Chinese media who dubbed the show the country’s “first workplace TV show about semiconductors.” The series is being produced by Chinese studios including SMG Pictures, a subsidiary of state-owned giant Shanghai Media Group, and Perfect World Pictures (link in Chinese), which has co-produced movies with Universal Pictures and BBC Films, according to state-owned outlet the Beijing Youth Daily. The education foundation of the prestigious Tsinghua University is also involved in the production.

The show has been approved by authorities and will take around four months to shoot, according to an announcement from the National Radio and Television Administration, China’s entertainment industry watchdog.

On the poster, a giant chip can be seen marching on a road flanked by skyscrapers, in the direction of Shanghai’s iconic Oriental Pearl TV Tower. The poster symbolizes how chips are leading people to a “brand new future,” said the Beijing Youth Daily.

As “an important project” of the NRTA and the Shanghai municipal propaganda department, the series will tell the story of how two overseas Chinese semiconductor whizzes are enticed to return home by Beijing’s preferential policies to develop the sector, and set out to help it build its own standards for communication chips as well as guide aspiring young engineers to advance China’s chip project. A major theme of the show will be about the love-and-hate relations between the two semiconductor experts, described as “high IQ maniacs,” who appear to be modeled on high-tech entrepreneurs “full of hormones,” said the outlet.

Perfect World Pictures and the SMG Pictures didn’t immediately reply to requests for comment.

Unlike the rosy outlook laid out by the show, however, China’s years of efforts and tens of billions of dollars of spending on developing semiconductors haven’t stopped it from remaining at least a decade behind the most advanced players. The US still dominates chip design, while Taiwan’s Foxconn and South Korea’s Samsung are the leading manufacturers. China faces major obstacles that include a shortage of chip talent, US export restrictions that forbid Chinese chip makers from accessing US semiconductor production equipment and software, and heavy spending required that has left many players faltering financially with little to show for it.

This situation is well known to at least one of the show’s backers. Tsinghua University was the majority owner of Tsinghua Unigroup, a leading chip developer that defaulted on its debts. This month a court approved a restructuring plan that will see two state-backed funds come in as strategic investors. As part of the deal Tshinghua Unigroup has abandoned plans to build two new semiconductor facilities.

Meanwhile, the TV show has so far generated limited buzz online, with only about dozen posts under a hashtag about the show on China’s Weibo. Just like China’s hard journey towards chip self-reliance, the show may face its own uphill battle to win a large audience.