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How Open Is China's Homegrown "Open-Source" Initiative?

BY David Eaves | Friday, March 29 2013

Last week Canonical — the creators of Ubuntu, a Linux distribution, announced on their blog a joint partnership with the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology to produce a Chinese-specific version of Ubuntu called Kylin.

Set to be released in April, Ubuntu Kylin will go "beyond language localisation and includes features and applications that cater for the Chinese market." What does that mean? It means baking into Kylin features and services from Chinese companies that might normally default to large western companies like eBay or Google. As the press release states:

"Chinese input methods and Chinese calendars are supported, there is a new weather indicator, and users can quickly search across the most popular Chinese music services from the Dash. Future releases will include integration with Baidu maps and leading shopping service Taobao, payment processing for Chinese banks, and real-time train and flight information. The Ubuntu Kylin team is cooperating with WPS, the most popular office suite in China ..."

This might all sound like a big win for open source in the largest market in the world. A BBC article about the announcement claims it is "widely seen as an attempt by China to wean its IT sector off Western software in favour of more home-grown alternatives."

It also places an interest twist on the use of "open' as a geo-political tool. China is not the first emerging power to see open source as a way to enhance its autonomy and diminish the leverage of foreign stakeholders. Brazil has which began to aggressively invest in and implement open source solutions around 2003, also saw it as a strategic choice. Yes, reducing software costs of government played a role, but it too wanted to boost the develop its IT sector - which it sees as being strategically important - as well as reduce its dependency on American software companies.

The question of course, is how effective will these strategies be? Particularly in societies where the flow of information is monitored and managed. It is often said — and I agree — there is nothing about using open source software that forces one to be more democratic or respectful of individual rights or civil liberties. I (and I imagine others) have said before, there is nothing that stops one from running an efficient and effective authoritarian government on open source software.

The bigger question however is, can you build and maintain open source software under a single party authoritarian regime? That's a more interesting question. I suspect that answer is yes, but it is not clear that it will be as easy. Most regimes fear connectivity — letting large groups of people organize in even loosely coordinated ways — since while such networks might be designed to protect workers' rights, deal with natural disasters, or code software, they can sometimes be repurposed to, say, spread subversive information or protest against the regime. So it will be interesting to see how the Chinese government might manage and monitor that community, and if that impacts its capacity to develop software.

I suspect you can. As much as it would be nice to think that open source communities — with its libertarian streak and norms that support self-organizing — might prove to be a challenge to the Chinese government, the truth is, it is hard to imagine they would. Rather the real challenges are probably structural. What is more important is that it may not matter.

To see why, one need only look back a decade. The Ubuntu announcement may sound groundbreaking. The reality is. It isn't.

Back in 1999 the Chinese government made a similar announcement with the launch of Red Flag Linux, a Chinese-specific version of Linux. There is a good article over at Tech Republic that charts the history of Red Flag — and it isn't promising:

However, Red Flag Linux has turned out to be little more than a key bargaining chip in a high stakes game of commerce between the Chinese government and the world's largest software maker. Thanks to some major concessions on source code and a precipitous price drop, the Chinese government has now thoroughly embraced Windows and Office. And thanks to a major about-face in the way that it deals with piracy, Microsoft has also won over the Chinese people.

Maybe this time it's different? Maybe. But I suspect something else has happened. Not to China, but to open source as a brand.

The short answer is, the open source space is much broader than it used to be, and the ingredients to necessary to lay claim to being "open source" are not as ideological as they used to be. While there are still many open source projects that, as Clay Shirky once said, are driven by "love", we've also seen the rise of fairly soulless open source projects, those — like Google's Chrome or Android — that are open in name only and to which the access to influence and make decisions are beyond the influence of non-corporate (or even non-Google) affiliated contributors.

Today one can be open source and not at all open. As a model it can be very powerful to enable large corporate or institutional players coordinate more effectively while retaining a high degree of control and not getting bogged down by ideological concerns that contributors may try to inject into the development process. This may be just the kind of open source model that provides the leverage China wants, with the control that it would like.