China’s top memory chip maker YMTC replaces CEO amid risks of US sanctions after rumoured Apple deal

The chief executive of Yangtze Memory Technologies Co (YMTC), China’s largest producer of memory chips, has stepped down as the company faces mounting pressure amid the prospect of US sanctions.

Simon Yang, who has headed the subsidiary of Tsinghua Unigroup since its founding in 2016, is exiting the role but will stay with the company as deputy chairman, Chinese industry news website IC Rank reported on Friday.

Chen Nanxiang, an industry veteran and the former deputy general manager at China Resources Microelectronics, has been appointed chairman and acting CEO, according to the report.

Yang is stepping down for personal reasons, according to the Taiwanese site Tech News. YMTC did not respond to requests for comment on Saturday.

Yang, a US-educated engineer who previously worked at Intel and GlobalFoundries for more than a decade, is one of the leading figures in China’s push for technological self-reliance.

In 2001, Yang became one of the founding members of Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp (SMIC), the country’s largest chip foundry, and rose to become chief operations officer in 2010 before resigning the following year.

In January 2013, Wuhan Xinxin Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp announced that Yang has been appointed its new CEO. Tsinghua Unigroup acquired the memory chip maker in 2016, when it was transformed into YMTC.

Under Yang’s leadership, YMTC quickly grew into an industry giant. One of its latest products is a 232-layer chip, according to Chinese media, which would put it on par with leading memory chip makers like Samsung Electronics, Micron and SK Hynix.

This growth has invited scrutiny. Washington has reportedly been weighing a ban on selling US semiconductor manufacturing equipment to China’s advanced NAND flash chip foundries, citing a “growing threat” posed by manufacturers like YMTC to national security and US chip companies.

News that Apple is considering using YMTC’s flash memory for iPhones sold in China also raised the ire of some lawmakers. Last week, a group of US senators called for a national security review of a potential deal between the two companies, citing privacy and security vulnerability concerns.

On Friday, two Republican congressmen announced that they introduced legislation to “impose crippling sanctions” on YMTC that would prevent Apple from using its chips.

YMTC has denied claims from US politicians that it has ties with Chinese military, but it has not publicly commented on the prospect of sanctions. The company also has not confirmed the number of memory cell layers in its latest products, keeping a low profile regarding its latest breakthroughs.

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