Asia Business China Industry News Technology

China’s Huawei Launches Mate 60 Pro Smartphone with 5G Chip Breakthrough

A packed stadium and a millions-strong online audience were eager Monday to hail a Chinese breakthrough that would defy the U.S. But the high-profile launch by Huawei — a tech giant whose products are restricted by the U.S. and other countries over national security fears — kept fans, experts and rivals guessing about its secretive new smartphone.

The Chinese firm revealed no new details about the phone, whose purported capabilities have fueled frenzied speculation in the U.S. and Europe about whether Beijing had achieved a major advance in semiconductor chip technology that would worry Washington.

The lack of new information about the Mate 60 smartphone series left many fans in China disappointed but still eager to show their support for a product that has been accompanied by great nationalistic fanfare.

“Buying domestic chips is to support my own country,” Zhiwen Yang, 18, said outside a Huawei store in Beijing. He said he has been using Apple’s iPhone but planned to buy the new Mate 60 series for its homegrown 5G capabilities.

Semiconductor secrets

Reviews from users and analysts have indicated that the phone is able to use 5G rapid internet speeds thanks to Chinese-made advanced semiconductor chips, brains that power toasters to fighter jets, which have emerged as a key battleground between the world’s two largest economies.

The advancement wasn’t thought to be possible after the U.S. imposed a barrage of sanctions in 2019 aimed at crippling Huawei’s smartphone division, which relied heavily on the U.S. and its allies for critical chips and software.

The U.S. and allies cited national security concerns in imposing the bans, with Huawei accused of facilitating spying for the Chinese government — claims it has denied.

But news of the new phone — the Mate 60 Pro+ will cost from 8,999 yuan ($1,230) — indicated not just that Huawei was back to rival Apple but also that Beijing may have been able to build the chips at home despite U.S. sanctions, raising concerns in Washington.

While Huawei operates throughout the world, it wasn’t clear when the new series would go on sale outside China.

Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said last week at a U.S. House hearing that she was “upset” after she learned of the reported breakthrough. The White House said it was trying to get more information about the chip.

China accused the U.S. of acting against Huawei to make up for its own failings.

“The U.S. government’s suppression of Chinese companies is not about national security, but about using illegal and unfair means to stop Chinese companies from succeeding when the U.S. is not getting ahead in a normal competition,” Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Monday at a daily news briefing.

Huawei’s chips were produced by Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp., a Shanghai-based manufacturer that was on a U.S. trade blacklist and was earlier believed to have much inferior capabilities.

The Canadian analysis firm TechInsights said the phone “represents a made-in-China design and manufacturing milestone” that was capable of network speeds equivalent to the speed of 5G.

Huawei hasn’t officially confirmed that the phone is 5G-capable, but that didn’t stop excited fans in China from being glued to a livestream of Monday’s launch event, with some rushing to stores after it finished.

Only 20 phones were available for sale at a store in Beijing when NBC News visited, even though dozens of people lined up outside with police at bay to quell the occasionally aggressive queues.

Some potential customers were, however, left bemused over the lack of information about the much-anticipated products.

The launch event ended with a group of people onstage singing and waving Mate 60 smartphones with flashlights switched on. “Why didn’t they talk about it? Everyone watched it because of the smartphone,” said Maniler, a user of the social media platform Weibo.

The phone’s chips consist of tiny patterns that are measured in nanometers and are etched onto thin slices of silicon called wafers.

TechInsights said Huawei was deploying a 7-nanometer manufacturing process for its new phones.

Apple, by comparison, was deploying the much more advanced 3-nanometer process in the chips for its latest iPhone 15 Pro series.

Apple’s cutting-edge chips are almost entirely made by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., the most advanced chipmaker in the world, adding fuel to tensions between Beijing and Washington over Taiwan’s self-governing democracy.

Despite the apparent breakthrough, which was first reported by Bloomberg, Huawei is still two generations behind the likes of Apple, TechInsights Vice Chair G. Dan Hutcheson said.

“They are advanced, but they’re not very, very advanced,” he said, adding that the Mate 60 capabilities were somewhere between those of an iPhone 10 and an iPhone 12.

“It was much harder for the Chinese, because they’ve been kind of walled off technologically, so they had to do it all themselves,” Hutcheson said. “They knew it could be done. It was a matter of them discovering how to do it.”

But whether China can produce enough of the chips to really worry the U.S. is another matter. Raimondo said, “We don’t have any evidence that they can manufacture 7-nanometer [chips] at scale.”

Monday’s launch event was also seen as symbolic, as it coincided with the second anniversary of the return to China of Huawei’s rotating chairwoman, Meng Wanzhou, who was detained in Canada in 2018 over U.S. fraud charges.

Huawei quietly released the Mate 60 phones in late August without any notice, just as Raimondo visited China. At the time, Chinese state media hailed the launch as a symbolic victory over the U.S. tech sanctions, and analysts said the timing was unlikely to be a coincidence.

Raimondo was swept up in the prelaunch fervor after her visit to the Boeing hangar in Shanghai’s Pudong Airport went viral, not because of her words but because a picture of the event was supposedly taken by the widely discussed smartphone. She quickly became a meme, with fake ad campaigns popping up on Chinese social media portraying her as Huawei’s brand ambassador.

“The Secretary has been the target of numerous negative statements by the Chinese state-run media for her Department’s role in imposing trade restrictions on advanced chip technology,” said an international trade and national security expert, Daniel Pickard, an attorney at the law firm Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney PC.

“It’s much more likely that Huawei timed its announcement to generate nationalist sentiment and make a political statement,” he added by email.

Source : NBC News