Ah, that inscrutable Uncle Sam. Once again, he is thoroughly confusing the U.S. semiconductor industry. His latest watchword: When it comes to hiring Chinese citizens for high-tech U.S. positions, it's "do as the Feds say, not as they do."U.S. chip companies have tried unsuccessfully for years to get U.S. government hardliners to relax export control regulations on employing Chinese nationals. The Dr. Strangeloves in government require that U.S. chip makers get export-control approval to hire a Chinese citizen. That's because these companies deal in technology that can't be exported to China - and that especially includes leading-edge semiconductor design and manufacturing.
It gets worse. After finally getting Uncle's clearance, chip firms must then cordon off their Chinese hires from that part of the workplace where this restricted technology is being employed. It has become a major pain for chip companies to have to wait a long time to get government clearance to hire Chinese scientists or engineers and then try to fence them off within the workplace.
So it is highly ironic that chip makers now learn that the Los Alamos National Laboratory, run by the Department of Energy (DOE) was giving almost open rein to a Chinese national who worked close to where the most sensitive U.S. nuclear secrets were kept. The citizen of the People's Republic of China was hired as an assistant by a Taiwan-born project manager, who himself was under suspicion at the time for security violations. The Chinese national now has disappeared and his boss fired in the midst of a current espionage investigation.
The General Accounting Office in April took an expanded look at the DOE's nuclear lab security and found there were major breaches. In contrast, the high-tech industry, including the chip makers, get a clean bill of health. No one has found any of the Chinese nationals working in U.S. fabs slipping "national secrets" back to their homeland. One reason for this is that U.S. chip makers keep a tight lid on their proprietary data - they want to keep it away from each other as well as from any foreign rivals. DOE, take note.
And there's more irony. Uncle Sam's newly revealed security breaches are threatening to make matters even worse for high-tech companies trying to hire Chinese nationals. Any hope of getting these onerous employment restrictions relaxed seems to have gone up in smoke.
The government's own lapse of security is now being used by political hardliners to crack down even harder on high-tech exports to China. Even the DOE, the culprit agency in this whole case, is one of the leaders of a bureaucratic pack demanding tighter export controls.
The spy drama that went on at Los Alamos also has helped to derail, at least temporarily, the drive to admit China into the World Trade Organization. The White House rebuffed China, despite its unprecedented offers to open up its high-tech markets and to eliminate all of its tariffs within six years on information technology goods, including semiconductors.
The drama playing out here is worthy of ancient Roman theater. The semiconductor industry must continue to be purer than Caesar's wife at a time when the emperor is running amok. However, we all know who will end up paying for the ruler's indiscretions.
When I go to a conference and see bobble-headed enthusiasts wearing some kind of virtual reality goggles, spinning around in chairs, craning their necks to see some distant corner of a virtual world – I’m both completely disinterested and oddly intrigued.