Originally Published: Friday, 7 January 2000 Author: Rob Bos
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Linux in China

My, it's been an interestingly fast-paced couple of months. Product announcements, product followthroughs, IPOs, pundits, market evaluations, and all sorts of interesting things have been happening. It's a little overwhelming to see world domination start to take hold and flourish....

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My, it's been an interestingly fast-paced couple of months. Product announcements, product followthroughs, IPOs, pundits, market evaluations, and all sorts of interesting things have been happening. It's a little overwhelming to see world domination start to take hold and flourish.

The next stage in world domination, the conquest of the oldest continuous culture on the face of the planet (currently being run by the Red Dynasty), seems to be well at hand. Rumours that China will adopt Linux as its primary operating system in order to free itself ideologically from dependence on an American company are abounding. While I would stress that there is nothing official quite yet -- this is something that should really only be believed when it is implemented -- it's a compelling idea, and one that could have enormous implications for both China and the development of free software.

Many people have serious reservations about this; an association of Linux with Communism is not something anyone wants at this point. Regardless of whether Communism is a good or a bad thing, it has a bad image in the public mind and as such, many fear that this could turn out to be a public relations disaster of immense proportions for the Linux operating system. Other people fear that the government of China could co-opt the development of free software, by not releasing the changes. They might even rationalise it by saying that since their modifications are for "internal use only," "internal" referring to about a billion people, they wouldn't have to release the changes.

This is, well, paranoia. First of all, it is not yet confirmed whether this will actually happen. All we have to go on is an article in a mainland China newspaper and not a great deal more than rumours.

The first misconception, if I might digress on to the subject of Microsoft for a moment, is the possibility of Windows 2000 being banned in China, could be completely false, having been officially denied by both Microsoft and Chinese officials. "The newspaper offered no evidence to back up its report that Windows 2000 had been blacklisted," as that article puts it. What is true is that the Chinese government intends to actively encourage home-grown operating systems. That is where the so-called Red Flag Linux comes into the picture.

Here, on the other hand, is where the interesting stuff comes in. Assume China does adopt free software on a large scale. The libertarian ideals that have pervaded free software development since the very beginning is not something that can be trivially adopted on a large scale by a culture that has lived under a vicious dictatorship for so long. The adoption on a large scale of free software could end up one of the most revolutionary things that the Red Dynasty has ever had to deal with.

A generation of computer users immersed in the culture of free software and the ideas of the international software development communities could be the greatest coup for the liberation of China in years -- and it will be a very long-term thing. In the short run, China will benefit from high-quality software for free, but at the same time they will be fostering the seeds of a development community with an open tradition. This community will also, over time, hold the technological reins of a country increasingly dependent on it holding more and more political power. The political power that technically educated people hold in the rest of the world is only starting to take hold and flourish. Over time, the adoption of Linux in China could have far-reaching consequences, as far-reaching as it is starting to have in North America.

The effects on the free software communities could be equally as far-reaching; the internationalisation of software will need to improve, forcing the creation and maintenance of better solutions. If the Internet-using population of China and Asia grows as quickly as some studies would seem to indicate, and if a good proportion of them are using a Linux derivative, the amount of skill that the free software communities have to throw at any given problem will be correspondingly increased, and from that we all benefit. In addition, the increase in the worldwide Linux "market" could end up a significant factor in the decision of companies in the rest of the world to throw in support for Linux.

Besides, getting officially adopted by China doesn't seem to have hurt Microsoft. Why should it hurt free software?

In short, China's adoption of Linux could be an incredibly Good Thing [tm] in the best case, and not a bad thing in the worst case. Sit back and enjoy the ride.

Rob Bos, rbos@linux.com





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