In brief

  • Taiwanese authorities have accused Chinese mining firm Bitmain of illegally poaching more than 100 engineers.
  • Other Chinese companies are reportedly under investigation over luring Taiwanese tech talents.

Chinese crypto mining rig manufacturer Bitmain Technologies has reportedly illegally poached at least 100 engineers in a bid to accelerate the development of proprietary artificial intelligence(AI)-powered chips.

According to a recent report by Nikkei Asia, Taiwanese prosecutors launched a probe at several locations in New Taipei City and Hsinchu, interrogating 19 local executives and engineers suspected of being involved.

Hsinchu is a major economic hub for the global semiconductor industry and home to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), the world’s largest chipmaker.

According to preliminary results of the investigation, Bitmain established a company in Beijing and lured a senior engineer to take up the role of chairman, while also asking him to persuade his former colleagues to follow.

Additionally, two more companies—IC Link and WiseCore—were set up in Taiwan with the purpose of conducting large-scale research focused on the development of AI chips.

The New Taipei Prosecutors Office took possession of evidence including employee lists and salary information from IC Link and WiseCore. A spokesperson said that Bitmain’s illegal talent poaching dates back to 2018 and the companies in question “served a headhunting purpose,” seeking talents across other Taiwanese firms.

According to the existing agreement between China and Taiwan, residents of mainland China are barred from investing in certain Taiwanese industries deemed crucial from the point of view of national security. The chip design sector falls into that category, meaning that companies looking to enter this field require preliminary approval from the authorities.

Other Chinese companies are reportedly suspected of poaching talent from Taiwan as well, with investigations being opened into several of them.

“In several cases, we have noticed chip design or chip research and development are not part of the corporate activity the company is registered to conduct,” a senior national security official told the Financial Times. “In others, companies have posed as ordinary Taiwanese or foreign start-ups and failed to disclose their Chinese capital.”

Bitmain's AI-powered mining plans

Bitmain’s co-founder Micree Zhan first outlined the company’s plans for developing AI mining chips back in 2017. Next year, the Beijing-based firm released Sophon, an AI chip supposed to be capable of performing millions of calculations per second.

Earlier this year, in a settlement worth $600 million, Zhan officially replaced his co-founder Jihan Wu as Bitmain's general manager and executive director, bringing to an end a year-long feud between the pair.