Closed Society, Open Source

In some ways it's hard to think of anything more American than Linux. A Finnish computer programmer named Linus Torvalds created the operating system, but Thomas Jefferson would have loved it. When Torvalds finished, he simply posted the code online and asked other people to download it (for free), use it and improve it. Torvalds even registered the code under something called "copyleft," which legally precludes anyone from owning or controlling it. His idea, long nurtured by pockets of programmers around the world, was to promote software design based on wild, democratic and free-ranging discussions open to anyone with a modem and some intuition.

Such "open source" software would seem, prima facie, to be anathema to a repressive government such as China's. In the largest country on earth, after all, it can be dangerous merely to go online; agents from the Ministry of Public Security may nab you if you "create, replicate, retrieve, or transmit" anything from "feudal superstitions" to information "injuring the reputation of state organs." And the democratic, even anarchic, principles of open source run directly counter to the autocratic ideology of the Chinese state. The United States, on the other hand, ought logically to be a champion of open source; the theories of democratic governance and of open-source software arise from roughly the same philosophical roots. Yet here's a supreme irony: While America's open government twists patent laws and copyright policy as sops to closed-source software companies such as Microsoft, China's Communist government has begun doing the opposite, that is, promoting open-source software programs such as Linux.

In truth, it's not ideology that attracts the Chinese politburo to Linux; rather, it's a blend of practicality, paranoia and nationalism. Having joined the World Trade Organization in late 2001, the Chinese government now faces stiff international penalties if it can't squelch its reputation as the pirating capital of the world. (An estimated 94 percent of commercial software currently sold in China is illicit.) Getting people to download and use Linux -- a system roughly equivalent to Microsoft Windows and Office combined -- for free seems much easier than trying to shut down pirating or to get people to pay hundreds of dollars a pop for Windows in a country with a per capita income of about $900 a year.

Secondly, the notoriously paranoid government in Beijing has also long feared that Microsoft Windows has a "back door" that could allow for U.S. government snooping -- a fear no doubt enhanced by the January discovery of bugging devices in President Jiang Zemin's new personal Boeing 767. Microsoft, of course, denies that it would ever be involved in such matters, but many Chinese still feel safer using the open code of Linux. In China, after all, any company as big as Microsoft would be in cahoots with the government.

To imprint open source with a distinctively nationalist stamp, the Chinese government helped create the bluntly named Red Flag Linux. Red Flag is not the only Linux company in the country, but it's certainly the biggest, claiming to have more than 1 million users. The government's official Web site runs on Red Flag, according to the South China Morning Post, and other state industries now use it, too, "especially security conscious ones," according to Matei Mihalca, a well-known technology industry analyst based in Hong Kong. Red Flag is also now installing the operating systems in state-run lotteries and, according to Red Flag CEO Liu Bo, most of China's e-government projects currently run Linux. This winter the city of Beijing awarded a major contract to Red Flag Linux, snubbing a bid from Microsoft in the process.

In a way, China is creating the world's most competitive market for operating systems. In the United States, Microsoft is deeply, maybe indelibly, embedded in our culture. Americans learn computer skills on Microsoft machines. Technical staffers take Microsoft classes in college. Many American-manufactured programs are dependent on Windows. Even computer professionals running Linux servers in back offices find it hard to abandon Microsoft completely. In China, too, a large proportion of computer users -- somewhere around 90 percent -- run Windows on their desktops right now, and several of China's most prominent computer vendors have announced plans to pre-install Windows XP on their machines. But Chinese computer users aren't dependent on Microsoft products to the extent that American users are. According to Ni Guangnan, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Computing Technology, that's largely because computer culture is less entrenched in China than in the United Sates, and that gives Microsoft a weaker grip on computer users there.

Millions of new people and thousands of companies go online each year in China. Microsoft partisans say that the software giant will still win out because it's more user-friendly and intuitive, which is certainly true when it comes to desktop computers. (Microsoft built systems hoping to sell them to regular home users; coders made Linux because they wanted something neat that geeks could run on old machines.) And in 1998, the ever-confident Bill Gates went so far as to predict that China's software piracy would ultimately provide a boon to Microsoft by precluding competition. "They'll get sort of addicted, and then we'll somehow figure out how to collect sometime in the next decade," he said at the time.

It's hard to predict what will happen, particularly as the operating system battles move to cell phones, handheld computers and smart cards, but Linux may well hook the Chinese first. Not only is the government giving it a big push, but Linux often is more reliable than Microsoft, as well as cheaper. Every time a Linux computer crashes, the user can examine the source code and see what went wrong, fix the problem and e-mail a solution back to a newsgroup. Whereas a Microsoft computer resembles a car with the hood welded shut, a Linux box not only has the hood open, it's got a few hundred thousand eager repairmen stationed around the world.

Linux usage is growing rapidly in China, and one of the country's largest universities will start offering courses for students who want to become Linux system administrators. According to Huagang Xie, a leading Chinese Linux programmer, "More and more people are using Linux as their Web server, mail server, etc. In this case, Linux is better than Windows. People like it."

The growth of Linux worldwide has set up an extraordinary culture clash. Open-source programmers represent the far edge of the Silicon Valley culture that has always spurned government control. A press release for a recent documentary about Linux aptly describes the designers as "three-parts libertarian, two parts Communist, and one-part bad garage band."

China's government, on the other hand, might be described as three parts nationalist, two parts capitalist and one part big surly authoritarian. "In the United States, the Internet comes from DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and was largely grown and cared for by crypto-anarchists," says James Mulvenon, a China researcher at Rand. "The system in China has always been state driven. The state set up all the rules and regulations and then they started buying routers."

To understand how many programmers feel about the spread of Linux in such an autocratic environment, imagine how environmentalists might feel if the Bush administration funded the development of superefficient solar engines -- and then used them to power bulldozers in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. "I ... want nothing to do with the Communist Chinese government; it is not merely censorious (which is bad enough) but murderous and deeply evil," says Eric Raymond, the Linux community's so-called chief evangelist.

Part of the resentment toward the Chinese coders also stems from a fear that China will get a free ride off the work of others, adopting whatever improvements come from programmers around the world while keeping its own advancements locked up. Red Flag has already earned criticism for bundling proprietary software -- for example, its containment of support for users of Mandarin -- with its version of Linux. To critics, that represents a throttling of open source of the sort expected from the country that was the site of the Tiananmen Square massacre. (To others, it's not that different from what, say, ibm does by writing proprietary software to run on top of Linux.) So far, in any event, no Chinese programmer has made a major contribution to the Linux kernel, and it's not clear whether Red Flag will publicly release the improvements it makes. For its part, Red Flag says that it very much respects the open-source community; Red Flag's lawyer, Tony Fu, says it will "definitely obey the [rules of copyleft]."

As to whether Linux can actually help to open up China, it helps to consider an old quotation: "The masses have boundless creative power. They can organize themselves and concentrate on places and branches of work where they can give full play to their energy." A manifesto extolling the virtues of Linux? Nope: It's propaganda from Chairman Mao Tse-tung. This suggests that, at the least, we ought to be skeptical of how open source gets translated into political ideology in China.

More importantly, the Chinese government has shown that it knows how to control the technological revolution that many people thought would transform the country. With the help of American companies such as Cisco Systems, the world's largest country has built a giant national screening system known as the "great firewall of China." Chinese users often can't access Western news Web pages, and the government almost always blocks pages promoting Chinese democracy. Internet service providers, held responsible by the government for anything in their systems, send censors (or "big mamas") to patrol chat rooms and bulletin boards. Moreover, through just a few high-profile arrests and crackdowns, the Chinese government has created a culture of self-censorship -- everyone now worries that criticism of the government could result in the dreaded knock on the door at 4 a.m. For this story, about a dozen e-mails were sent to Chinese programmers asking technical questions about Linux. Almost everybody responded. Another dozen e-mails were sent to other programmers asking about Linux and freedom. Nobody responded.

A few companies have managed to set up systems that allow people in China to transmit data securely from the Internet, spawning the hope that freely disseminated information might foment political insurrection. But the most common use of these systems by far isn't electronic samizdat; it's hard-core porn. "The Chinese programmers treat Linux as a tool to catch up with Western computer technology," says Jeff Liu, a leading Taiwanese Linux programmer. "The liberal concept inside might influence them in the long run. However, the Chinese people are more interested in money making than freedom seeking nowadays.

Still, perhaps the hopes of political dissidents -- and the fears of the Chinese government -- will eventually be realized through the help of open-source software. It just may take a while. "I can't say that there are more people talking about Linux than [there were] a few months ago," says Shell Hin-lik Hung, a Linux developer in Hong Kong. "But I can tell you that more people use Linux than a few months ago."