Free Software adoption in China

Posted 9 Aug 2000 at 08:14 UTC by advogato Share This

When I talk to people about Linux, lately more and more bring up its "official adoption" in China. It's always seemed to me that the story is more complicated than that, but so far the media have been too stupid and/or lazy to get to the bottom of it. Thus, I was very happy to see this Salon article linked from LWN.

This article brings up two questions for Advogato: first, can China, a truly huge country ("two billion armpits"), sustain real free software development? So far, the answer seems to be no. What can we do, as English-speaking free software developers, do to help free software development in China along?

Second, China provides us with a very interesting model of a post-copyright society. Here, finally, we have the realization of the utopian dream of nobody getting paid for their intellectual property! How well does that work in practice?

Of course, it's likely that the terms of free software licenses be as widely ignored as those of the shrink-wrap licenses accompanying pirated proprietary software in China. That's likely to be a bad thing.

China is of course not the only developing country with an interesting free software story. Mexico is the home of a surprising number of free software hackers and leaders, including the founders of the Gnome project. However, there seems to be a strong northward pull (perhaps the dual to Ross Perot's giant sucking sound) for the most talented hackers, most recently manifested in Arturo Espinosa Aldama's move to Helix Code.

Comments and discussion are, as always, welcome.


Free software licenses are self-enforcing in China, posted 9 Aug 2000 at 10:16 UTC by PaulJohnson » (Journeyer)

... can China, a truly huge country ("two billion armpits"), sustain real free software development? So far, the answer seems to be no.

Thats because so far there are not many software developers in China. I don't know how many Pentium-class computers there are in China with even half-way decent Internet connections, but I bet its not that many. Most of those billion don't even have a telephone.

What can we do, as English-speaking free software developers, do to help free software development in China along?

Not much, I suspect. (Apart from what we are already doing, of course). I suppose we could send them our old 486s and P90s, but I doubt it would make that much difference.

Second, China provides us with a very interesting model of a post-copyright society. Here, finally, we have the realization of the utopian dream of nobody getting paid for their intellectual property! How well does that work in practice?

Thats going to be the interesting bit. However China wants to join the WTO, and the WTO means respecting copyrights on software from other nations. Believe me, you do not want to be on the receiving end of Chinese government justice: it often involves execution or long years working as a slave in factories with no health and safety inspector. Once the Chinese government decides that copyright piracy is counter-revolutionary I would not like to be a copyright pirate in China.

Of course, it's likely that the terms of free software licenses be as widely ignored as those of the shrink-wrap licenses accompanying pirated proprietary software in China. No. If copyleft is unenforceable because copyrights in general are unenforceable then its irrelevant: closed software is less valuable than open source software, and keeping it closed will not give monopoly rents because they depend on copyright. So it won't be worth anyone's while developing. OTOH if software licenses are enforced then the GPL will be as enforceable as any other.

Paul.

"property" and "piracy", posted 9 Aug 2000 at 15:08 UTC by stefan » (Master)

Of course, it's likely that the terms of free software licenses be as widely ignored as those of the shrink-wrap licenses accompanying pirated proprietary software in China. That's likely to be a bad thing.

Let's play a bit evil's advocate. I can't resist:

Imagine a culture which has no notion of intellectual property. Knowledge spreads as fast as the infrastructure permits, no legal (or moral) walls.
(No, I'm not talking about China)
You go there and try to sell (license) your knowledge. No-one will understand what you are trying to accomplish. How are you going to deal with that ?

In principle, you would have to acknowledge that the two cultures are incompatible, there is no way to deal with one another. In practice, the problem is quite complicated, if only because you want to make business with them.

And, we already had the same pattern, here on north american territory: European men trying to buy land from nativ people. Even though it was clear that the Indians didn't have any notion of property of land, white men didn't bother, and often did hilarious deals, simply because their peers in a business hadn't really catched on the principle of the deal. The rest is history...

The moral:
when doing business (and in case you are really interested into the ethical side of it), try not to project your own culture and values onto the other side. It may destroy that other culture.

in reply to Stefan, posted 9 Aug 2000 at 16:35 UTC by jwalther » (Journeyer)

Chinese culture is worth destroying. When in Mexico I felt very at home there. They have a strong culture of pride, independance and freedom. One can find more remnants of Americas Wild West individualism and Yankee "can-do" in South and Central America than in America itself. Individualism in China, however, is a thought crime.

Delenda est Cathay!

[OT] "worth destroying"?, posted 9 Aug 2000 at 22:57 UTC by hexmode » (Journeyer)

This is a very odd comment. From what I can tell of jwalther's response, he condones destroying China's culture because "Individualism [...] is a thought crime" there.

What?

Since when was a culture that did not worship the idol of individualism worthy of destruction?

Perhaps it is just me, but I always assumed that people's thought's and culture's were their own and it was not for me to pass the ultimate judgement of death.

Heck, I've even let other people use Windows even though I personally find the culture that accompanies it quite distasteful.

[OT] worth destroying?!, posted 9 Aug 2000 at 23:07 UTC by ask » (Master)

geez, stephan ...

Do you really know Chinese culture well enough to judge it to be worth destroying? I don't think so. (Not that I know it that well).

[OT] ooops, wrong name., posted 9 Aug 2000 at 23:09 UTC by ask » (Master)

I don't know how I got translated jwalther to stephan. At least I spelled stephan wrong too so I didn't step on anyones toes. :-)

A lot of ignorance, even in Advogato, posted 9 Aug 2000 at 23:18 UTC by atai » (Journeyer)

It is so sad to see, even in the community supposely filled with idealism, many people (including "Advogato") shows ignorance and prejudice.

First, what does "can China sustain real free software development?" mean? Any evidence behind that assertion? "Never seen a Chinese software program" is not good enough.

Just look at the basics. Do you mean there are no software developers in China? Or you mean there is no Internet in China? For your info, one of the hottest career in China for young people is to start up Chinese .com companies with Chinese content. Obviously if there is not a significant Chinese Internet user base there would not be such development.

And jwalther: "Chinese culture is worth destroying". Care to explain?

For anyone interested, take a look at http://sina.com/ to see China-related news, including technology and Internet development. Sina.com, of course, is a good example of Chinese web use with a high visibility in America.

some information about Internet/computer use in China, posted 10 Aug 2000 at 00:01 UTC by atai » (Journeyer)

These are some facts about Internet and computer technology in China. Not free-software specific, but should give a good feeling about the environment for Chinese free software development:

First, from China News Digest, http://ww4.cnd.org/CND-China/CND-China.new.html,

(4) Internet Users in China Quadrupled to 8.9 Million

[CND, 01/18/00] The number of Internet users in the country more than quadrupled last year to 8.9 million, AFP reported citing statistics from China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC).

By the end of this year, the number of Internet users will reach 20 million, a CNNIC official is quoted as saying. Industry experts were not surprised by the number as Internet usage in China had doubled every six months in the past 18 months.

"Increased knowledge of the Internet across society, more content and information and the falling cost are the main reasons behind the rapid growth," said Stephen McKeever, an IT analyst for Lehman Brothers in Hong Kong.

According to CNNIC, 75 percent of people going online were men aged between 18 and 30 with an education level ranging from two-year vocational schools to colleges.

An average user spends about 17 hours online each week. Some 65 percent of the users were single and earned 500 yuan to 2,000 yuan per month.

The e-commerce development remaines a challenge as few Chinese people had credit cards and most preferred to see and touch a product before buying it, said an expert.

However, the potential for Internet business in China remains very appealing. The survey showed that less than half the companies had Internet access, while 75 percent of the people did not have personal Internet accounts, and less than nine percent of respondents had made a purchase on the Internet.

According to the survey, the top 10 most popular Chinese-language web sites, in order of popularity based on replies from more than 200,000 respondents, are www.sina.com.cn, www.163.com, www.sohu.com, www.163.net, www.263.net, www.china.com, www.21cn.com, www.east.net.cn, www.online.sh.cn and www.cpcw.com. (Ray ZHANG, YIN De An)

That was more than six months ago. So now there may be 17 million or more people using Internet in mainland China alone.

Second, we know that Intel sells their processors in two segments: the high end (Pentium III) and the low end (Celeron). Do you know that Intel sells only the high end segment (Pentium III) in mainland China, and they don't even bother to push the Celeron there? I will let you guess why:-)

Third, some fact most of you can relate to, in your life. Think "Chinese" and "computer" (or "high technology") are terms hard to relate together? If you use PCs where are they made of? Very possibly MADE IN TAIWAN. Just remember China is not just mainland only. Also think Hong Kong and Taiwan. The Chinese have already made their presence known in the computer revolution.

Plus one more fact: think "individualism" is foreign to the Chinese culture? Just compare Taiwan and Japan or South Korea. Think of many big companies you can name in Japan and Korea? And try to name one in Taiwan. Try to think of these business combines in Japan/Korea, and think about Taiwan's dominance in the PC industry but the lack of big companies. Consider why small/medium businesses form the backbone of Taiwan's computer industry.

Free peoples even more important than free softwares ..., posted 10 Aug 2000 at 01:17 UTC by pliant » (Master)

I you speak, or think about china, then it' time for you to look at Pliant usefull logo.

I believe that China, just like any other country will use plenty of free softwares, so I think these are very good places to put valuable messages reminding very basic things like the fact that a country (China) is not allowed to invade another one (Tibet). Commercials and politicals remain silent (when not worse) in human rights area because it does not help business, so let's carry it with our free softwares.

Delenda est Cathay, posted 10 Aug 2000 at 06:07 UTC by jwalther » (Journeyer)

I've said it elsewhere. The Chinese culture stifles those personal attributes that most go towards breeding the best hackers; curiousity, not fearing to explore, and yes, a sense of individual self worth. It is not alone in this, but like Microsoft, it is the biggest and most obvious target in that regard. Also the hardest to kill. The criteria for Free Software developement is even more stringent; it takes a culture where the concept of "giving something back" to the community at large isn't alien; it takes a culture where the idea of "what goes around comes around" isn't pitifully disproven every day of your life, and those of your ancestors going back 1000 years.

At one time, there was relative freedom there. And technology flourished in China. After all, thats where we get the phrase "Let a thousand schools blossom and flourish". The deep freeze of authoritarianism killed technological innovation. Japan is not the only country that regressed technologically, it is only that it was done within living memory in the west (they abandoned guns in the 1600's). 1000 years ago Chinese military technology was practically at our World War I levels. Yet 200 years ago the militarily "inferior" British kicked their asses. That is the price of living in a hive mind.

If you keep chopping off the heads of everyone who in any way steps out of line, after a few generations, you have a population who is not only unwilling to try anything new, but have a hard time even conceiving it. Lust for money becomes all consuming; its the only way to better ones lot. When one loves money, one generally isn't into giving. Again China isn't alone in this, its just the biggest and most obvious offender.

Delenda est Cathay

enough is enough, posted 10 Aug 2000 at 14:10 UTC by stefan » (Master)

Delenda est Cathay ...

for those who care: this refers to the Roman Empire and the three Punic wars it fought against Carthago. Could you please stop this arrogant and dangerous chauvinism ?
This is what fueled the cold war. Or are you seriously advocating another (third, as two thousand years ago) world war ? Back then, Carthago didn't exist any more after the third war, now Carthago would be the earth.

And: whom did you ask whether he wants to adopt your culture ? I certainly won't.

delenda est lethium, posted 10 Aug 2000 at 18:38 UTC by jwalther » (Journeyer)

My previous comments were ill advised, written will under caffeine deprivation, and didn't get across the point I meant to make: centuries of totalitarianism tends to kill out the social characteristics and human types that other wise self organize into "hacker communities", manifest "hacker ethics" and have fun in hackish types of ways.

Is there any way I can get those previous comments removed from here?

cathay == china, posted 10 Aug 2000 at 18:39 UTC by jwalther » (Journeyer)

I may have made a reference to the Punic wars, but Cathay is the ancient Roman term for China, not for Carthage.

delenda est lethium, posted 10 Aug 2000 at 19:59 UTC by stefan » (Master)

My previous comments were ill advised, written will under caffeine deprivation, and didn't get across the point I meant to make: centuries of totalitarianism tends to kill out the social characteristics and human types that other wise self organize into "hacker communities", manifest "hacker ethics" and have fun in hackish types of ways.

ok, this is a lot more moderate. However, your use of the term self organize suggest that you imply that a 'self organized' society (whatever that is) may be ethically, morally or whatever superior to a society which is actively, consciously, controlled.
I'm not arguing about China, I'm arguing about your we are superior because our society is more natural line of thought. Let me tell you, apes in central Africa are pretty natural too. That didn't hinder man kind to evolve.
Again: I'm not argueing in favor of totalitarian systems. I'm just not inclined to refuse any kind of human control of the society as seems to be the official libertarian position. I'm still trying to prove (if only to myself), that mankind has evolved from the predator phase. Such libertarian positions make that a tough job.

Ugh, not the response I was hoping for, posted 10 Aug 2000 at 21:24 UTC by advogato » (Master)

Hmm, I'm personally pretty disappointed by the quality of the commentary here. Almost all of the replies are off-topic for Advogato, even though I'd consider the original article to be on-topic (if boring).

atai: I would love to be proved wrong about the lack of serious free software development in China. Can you point me to some examples?

Even if there is vital free software development in China, they're not in good contact with English-speaking developers. If this is true, I'd be very interested to find ways to work better together.

Grounds for attempts at cultural change, posted 10 Aug 2000 at 21:30 UTC by nullity » (Master)

I see a very strong gut-reaction to jwalther's comments, though they themselves are not tactfully worded. That reaction is largely a result of strong tendencies in your own culture (or at least in my culture) towards universal acceptance being a "good thing". We don't want to ever judge - particularly if we can attribute behavior to another culture. This may be enlightened, I have yet to decide. However, I do wish to pose a counter-argument (and carefully distance myself from the particulars of what jwalther said - and rather address the meta-reasoning as to why he was supposed to be outrageously wrong)
 

The idea that a culture defies moral boundries is interesting, and certainely very relativistic. Some people are willing to carry this to its moral extremes, I personally think that is *INSANE*. For example, if there were a culture/country that supported the execution of all similarly-gendered children in a family when the eldest reached the age of 20...many of us would call that a violation of basic human rights and might even support force if the country showed no intention of changing. My point is that most of us consider murder outright murder wrong irregardless of its cultural context.
 

I claim that insomuch as a culture is merely a set of PEOPLE, and particularly since it is one with indeterminate, rather fuzzy boundries, the idea of respecting culture as a distinct entity is silly. Should I show consideration to another person's beliefs? YES! In the same way large groups of people sharing beliefs ("cultures") I don't necessarily agree with can exist and I'm happy, in fact I think it really strengthens the world as a whole. But this does not forgoe my ability to judge societal characteristics as bad, in the same way that I can say there are bad things about my own cultural, or about another person. "I think its bad that he swears at people who pass on the sidewalk and threatens to shoot them if they lay a foot on his lawn" Well I do! I think that's a really bad habit! I may even believe he's entitled to have that habit, but it does not prevent me from bringing it up with him (brrr....maybe not!) or talking about it. Now if he started to shoot people I'd probably think it was right to intervene with force. The same standard applies well, I would claim, to a culture.
 

Now I must be exceptionally careful when I do so that I understand the other culture - since I possess considerably more knowledge about my own culture (to enable me to comment) than I usually do about the other culture. And in the same way that I'd probably use great tact (or should) to comment when an individual does something wrong, its in my own interest to approach cultural commentary carefully. I feel quite free to say that another culture has inferior aspects to my own - and I feel quite free to say that another culture has superior aspects. In fact, I have many opinions that fall onto both sides of this fence (having lived in the Philippines for 9 years, and the US for the remainder). I do not think its wrong to even say something so strong as "German culture has a much better work ethic than Indonesia" (*totally* hypthotical and random!). I think one might even go so far as to say that one culture was better than another, though I don't consider myself to be in a position to make that judgement (you would really have to be totally familiar with at least two cultures).
 

So while it may be claimed that jwalther is insufficiently knowledgable to make claims about problems with Chinese culture (I personally think he does not understand modern China very well, having a number of Chinese friends and a roommate from mainland Chine last year. This does not make me think I know China, but it does make me suspicious of his statements), I don't think the act of making such statements in in error.

hacker genotype, posted 10 Aug 2000 at 21:51 UTC by jwalther » (Journeyer)

I view the hacker genotype as the peak of current evolution; therefore anything which seeks to eliminate it must likewise be done away with. And I dislike being considered less evolved by most members of a genotype that have lost the ability to grow facial hair.

Advogato, can you please remove my comments from this thread? While I stand by my opinions, this isn't the right forum to go into the reasons behind them. Better they don't appear at all. I also have noticed nonexistant Free Software community in China. In Taiwan, Japan and Korea there is significant work going on, but still nowhere near on par with the levels in Eastern Europe, which is similar economically to Asia.

metaphysics, posted 11 Aug 2000 at 01:07 UTC by stefan » (Master)

There is a very thin line between having a position wrt. a different culture, and a position as strong and deconstructive as the above. I'm not suggesting that we accept everything as being equally right as what we do. Quite on the contrary. Only dialog and continual comparison can get us further. However, whatever your position, it doesn't entitle you to simply step into someone else's house and enforce your own values.

Having said that, there is a different point: I'm sometimes wondering how relevant such discussions are. Value and moral systems are secondary, are a consequence of an existing socioeconomical structure. That is not to say that they don't interfer with this very structure (call it 'business model'), but what finally decides is the mere economical and or military power.
Whether you think your way of life is in any way superior to your neighbour's is totally irrelevant if he has the means to overrun your territory and simply annex it.

The reason I mention that is to suggest that our justification is an after effect of our own culture. It's normal. We got used to it. We got trained to defend its values. Again, I'm not defending a relativistic position. I do have strong opinions towards Chinese inner politics.
More to the original point, which was a massive defense (and implied aggression) of modern American individualistic values, please look at what the Chinese people achieved in the last hundred years. It's a *huge* people and they managed to get out of poverty. I pretty much doubt that you would have achieved that in America.

And finally, to get that discussion at least a bit closer to the original (intended) topic, I think that the whole idea of copyleft and Free Software is a phenomenon which is strongly rooted in western capitalistic (i.e. property oriented) society. It's a means to fight the totalitarian power of capital.
In this respect, I fully agree with Paul that something like the GPL in a different society might simply be meaningless. (And that was in fact the whole idea behind my first commentary). There is no point in enforcing your copyright, even if it is in fact a copyleft. It is respected by the very nature of that other society.

Of course, Chinese culture might not be such a good example, given that they in fact converge massively to modern capitalism anyway.

the utopian dream of nobody getting paid for their intellectual property!!, posted 11 Aug 2000 at 14:30 UTC by nixnut » (Journeyer)

  Second, China provides us with a very interesting model of a 
post-copyright society. Here, finally, we have the realization of the 
utopian dream of nobody getting paid for their intellectual property! 
How well does that work in practice? 

Well, maybe not getting paid for IP can be considered utopian. If you mean the concept of money is replaced by something like communism (as envisioned by Marx, not the corrupted version found in the world today). If what is what is now called IP is given away freely. Mind you GIVEN!! not TAKEN. And that it is repayed not with money, but with equal deeds of labor (or fruits of labor).
Otherwise it is just plain and simple robbery, which is not utopian in my book.

As for China: China is a country with a totalitarian goverment and severe socio-economic problems. Several millions (I've heard close to a hundred million) unemployed males. These are moving around a lot, looking for work and/or getting pushed off to somewhere else. Consider what could happen if these get organized. So, chinese goverment desperately has to try to keep a lid on things and at the same time improve the economy to ease of some pressure. Because of past/current power-structures and current needs chinese goverment is a control freak. Linux is to them something they can take and have total and complete control over. They can keep taking what they need and they will never have to give something back. China will not care batcrap about GPL, FSF, OSS copyleft/right/wrong. China is a totalitarian country, but also in need of help. Simple moral convictions will not help. Ignoring all violations of human rights however will not make China better either. Concrete help and dialog about human rights must find a balance and go hand in hand.

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