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Elaborate chip fraud unravels

Embarassing setback for Chinese government

Last week's firing of a prominent Chinese academic for faking the development of one of China's best-known chips is an embarrassing setback for a government that sees high-tech R&D as key to the country's economic future.

Chen Jin, dean of Shanghai Jiaotong University's School of Microelectronics, was fired after an investigation determined he faked the development of the Hanxin series of DSPs (digital signal processors). DSPs are a specialised type of processor used in mobile phones and other devices.

"Chen Jin bears the responsibility for serious fraud and deception in the development of the Hanxin chip," Shanghai Jiaotong University said in a statement.

Originally hailed as a breakthrough for China's chip industry, the first Hanxin DSP was unveiled in 2003. Over the next few years, Chen and his team of researchers introduced three more versions of the chip, declaring that they matched the performance and capabilities of DSPs available from leading multinational companies.

These announcements brought financial backing and praise from China's central government for the Hanxin project.

The elaborate fraud began to unravel in December, when officials were tipped off that Chen had faked the development of the chips. That tip sparked a two-month investigation led by a team of experts from the Ministry of Science and Technology, which had provided financial backing for the project.

Fraud allegations concerning the Hanxin chips have circulated in China for several months. Earlier this year, Chinese media reported that Chen had re-marked a small number of Freescale Semiconductor DSPs and passed them off as the first version of the Hanxin chip.

In the end, investigators found that all four versions of the Hanxin chip failed to meet the specifications claimed by Chen. For example, they discovered that the Hanxin 1 chip was incapable of playing MP3 files. They also found that the most recent version of the chip, the dual-core Hanxin 4, is actually based on a single processor core from another company and does not include a core developed by Chen and his team, the university said.

Shanghai Jiaotong University licensed an Arm processor core in 2003 for research.

Academic and scientific fraud is an area of growing concern in China, where many academics lead a double life as businessmen with their own companies. That includes Chen, who headed a company, Shanghai Hanxin Science & Technology, created to market the Hanxin chips.

On 8 May, a group of 120 Chinese scientists, many of whom work at universities in the US, published a letter they sent to Xu Guanghua, China's minister of science and technology, and Lu Yongxiang, president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, calling on the government to address the problem of scientific misconduct.

That letter called on the government to set guidelines for dealing with scientific misconduct and set up committees to investigate allegations of fraud. "The public has the right to know what scientists have done with public funds, and to question whether or not the science is properly conducted," it said.


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