Always on the Brink: Free and Open Source Software in China

Written by Matteo Tarantino.

Free and Open Source Software 开放源码软件 (FOSS) is by now long past the stage of “novelty” in China. Yet its integration into the Chinese software industry is still problematic.

FOSS stalwart operating system, Linux, has been present in China since 1996. In the two decades since, it has enjoyed its fair share of institutional support, epitomised by the request of the Chinese government to pull Windows from all public offices and replace it with Chinese Academy of Science (中国科学院) created Red Flag Linux in 2000. Internet cafes were threatened with a similar measure in 2008. While much of the episode is the stuff of myth and the move was eventually unsuccessful, for a brief moment, it looked like FOSS was about to take over in China.

It did not, but over the years, further institutional support has poured into several FOSS ventures, either in the form of public companies, FOSS-support institutions, research centres, or international cooperation efforts such as the one between British company Canonical, the National University of Defense and Technology (国防科学技术大学), and the Ministry of Industry and Information’s Software and Integrated Chip Promotions Centre (工业和信息化部电信用户申诉受理中心) that led to Ubuntu Kylin, the latest in a string of attempts at establishing a valid indigenous desktop alternative to Windows and OSX. All of this top-down support was motivated by a number of reasons, including the desire to leverage FOSS’ drive for innovation to boost the national IT industry, security concerns related to having foreign closed-source operating systems dominate the market, and the will to gain a stronger bargaining position vis-à-vis Western suppliers such as Microsoft.

Although Red Flag Linux did enjoy periodic bursts of installations (which should not be confused with actual use) before CAS pulled the plug in 2013, in the age of desktop computing, Linux and FOSS software never managed to woo consumer or professional audiences en masse. Since rampant piracy considerably lowered the cost of commercial software, neither audience could see the benefit of adopting Linux for their computers. Consequently, money in public procurement aside, Linux failed to attract the interest of the software industry in China.

Things changed with the switch to smartphones in the 2000s. The success of Android made Linux (on which Android is based) a mass commodity, albeit unbeknownst to many users. At any rate, FOSS is now everywhere in China: Being freely available for use and modification, open source code is incorporated either as infrastructure or component into the majority of software projects currently on the market. With its burgeoning software industry, China may be the place in the world where developers are quantitatively most exposed to this kind of code. On top of that, the Chinese software industry has proved extremely successful at creating indigenous consumer software, often incorporating FOSS elements.

Alas, the Chinese contribution to the Free and Open Source scene remains limited. While there are a number of FOSS projects active in China, the country still has to bring about its first major, internationally recognised open source project – a milestone often considered a key metric of FOSS’ stage of maturation. A lot of free and open source software flows into China and is used by the Chinese software industry; however, the feedback circuit has yet to be perfected.

To understand what underpins these dynamics, we may want to move from the macro to a micro perspective and spend some time in Chinese Linux User Groups (LUGs). LUGs are informal organisations gathering people interested in Open Source software, both professionals and hobbyists, who meet online and offline to discuss, develop, share knowledge, and advocate for the adoption of FOSS software.

The first Chinese LUG was founded in Shanghai in 1997, shortly after the arrival of Linux in China. For a long time, Chinese LUGs were dominated by Western IT expatriates. For this reasons, LUGs sprung up in cities with high concentrations of foreign IT companies or very strong IT universities – that is, Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. In the mid-2000s, Shenzhen, Chongqing and other major cities with a sizeable software scene caught up and opened their own LUGs.

Taking part in those LUGs in the second half of the 2000s, like I did, meant encountering three main divides separating “FOSS-agnostic” (mostly Chinese) from “FOSS-religious” (mostly Western) members. The first was motivation: contributing to FOSS development was seen by many Chinese developers as requiring a lot of effort without immediate rewards (monetary or otherwise). Since jobs in companies with business interest in furthering FOSS projects were limited, “no time” was the most common explanation for the lack of contributions. The second dividing line was hierarchy. Chinese developers appeared more stressed by the horizontal model of FOSS work, which is based on rapid cycles of criticism and improvement of other people’s work, and on relatively dynamic hierarchies. The third was a perceived gap in education – both on FOSS itself and regarding the IT skills required to emerge in the community of contributors.

While those divides are still present to varying degrees, the situation has been improving: The software industry now offers greater career prospects related to FOSS projects. For example, around 1% of modifications in the Linux kernel – once considered the greatest of FOSS achievements – are currently contributed by Huawei employees. With their focus on innovation, the latest education reforms have poured a lot of money into unstructured, cutting-edge innovation spaces in universities, and coding is being taught in K-12 schools (and even earlier). These changes are reflected in LUGs: They have come to include more and more Chinese members, developers appear more assured about their skills, and the main language has in some instances switched (either formally or informally) from English to Chinese.

Yet, FOSS is still “on the verge of exploding” in China – the same position that it has retained for almost twenty years. FOSS’ popularisation may need a further push; and a key area to improve may be the system of incentives.

In the West, along with a number of direct and indirect rewards for successful participants such as visibility, training and careers in FOSS-related enterprises, contribution to FOSS projects can also provide a symbolic payoff not dissimilar to what one gets from volunteering in NGOs, “working for a better world.” This system of incentives is the result of a decade-long process, which developed organically with the software industry and the academic system – and even today, FOSS is not a universally accepted “good.”

China did not have the benefit of this formative phase. Instead, it imported a mature model and tried to integrate it through strong top-down support. Results have been mixed: Chinese developers have yet to be provided with an organic system of incentives for FOSS contribution in the form of recognisable career benefits, social prestige or symbolic payoffs. These incentives never quite materialised even when FOSS was incorporated into institutional techno-nationalistic discourses, which usually frame Microsoft as a foreigner oppressor.

It has to be noted that issues of integration have not only originated on the Chinese side: The previously mentioned Ubuntu Kylin project encountered a lot of criticism from the FOSS scene. Direct cooperation with Chinese governmental institutions is seen as radically incompatible with FOSS by some commentator. Similar concerns were raised regarding the Huawei-sponsored contributions to the Linux kernel.

The global IT world can reap substantial benefits from a greater development of FOSS in China, especially given the pool of potential contributors. However, this requires a greater integration of FOSS culture into the Chinese software development scene. Such a development may benefit from a better alignment of institutional support and on-the-ground, grassroots activities such as those provided by LUGs.

Matteo Tarantino is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of East Asian Studies and the Confucius Institute at the University of Geneva, Switzerland. His current research focuses on software studies applied to environmental protection in China. Image Credit: CC by Tonynetone/Flickr 

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