Linux in China: Not ready for prime time

Why should the masses bother with free software when stealing from Microsoft is practically patriotic?

By Jonah Greenberg
Published August 9, 2000 7:30PM (EDT)

When a police jeep pulled up behind the street merchant who was trying to sell me a pirated CD-ROM version of Windows 98, my first reaction was to signal to my solicitor that he was putting himself in legal danger. Without so much as a flinch, the man stepped aside, let the officer pass and quickly resumed pushing his goods on me. As I watched in amazement, the car continued into an adjacent parking lot -- a virtual snake pit of black market software vendors -- and got a reaction out of none of them. It was then that I realized China's software market is in total chaos.

Today, like almost everywhere else, more and more Chinese people are buying PCs at continually dropping prices. But in China, all too often they can't afford the extra $200 for the Windows software necessary to make that computer work. The result: rampant piracy of foreign software in China. Buying pirated versions of Windows 98 and Windows 2000 is not only common among young computer users in China, but it is socially acceptable.

A more legally defensible solution to the country's economic handicap would be the widespread adoption of free or open-source software, such as Linux-based operating systems. Linux-based systems, which are essentially free, have been brought to China via Internet and through the marketing efforts of a handful of Linux vendors, such as Red Hat and TurboLinux. Many Linux advocates in the West see Linux-based operating systems as the most economical way to introduce advanced, Internet-capable computer systems to Third World countries that cannot afford proprietary software.

A backlash against Microsoft in the Chinese media has given strength to the open-source community in China, and certain agencies of the Chinese government are embracing Linux with a kind of nationalistic spirit. Open-source software is being touted as the white knight that can save China from a vendor lock-in with Microsoft, a scenario some in China refer to as an "opium dependency," conjuring up images of the unjust British colonialists of two centuries ago.

China may already have 2 million Linux users, if one is to believe, a popular Web site in China that provides news and information about technology. That's not a bad number when compared to the more than 20 million Windows users.

But those Linux users are an elite. This summer I met many of the organizers of the open-source community in China, including some of the earliest adopters of Linux. But contrary to the gung-ho kind of attitude I had expected, the Linux movement in China remains largely limited to small groups of bespectacled systems administrators and highly gifted computer users. Linux advocates do organize in regular club gatherings all over the country and in Internet chat rooms, and you will encounter occasional tirades about Microsoft's business practices in such places. But nobody expects Microsoft to get replaced in the household software market anytime soon. Very few Linux fans even seem to believe that it's their mission to promote open-source software among the mainstream computer users.

Widespread patriotic sentiment and the relative poverty of the Chinese people have led many to believe that Linux and open-source software will win the embrace of computer users all over China. But Chinese-language Linux-based operating systems, as currently offered by Chinese and foreign distributions, are far from matching Windows' ability to cater to the average computer user in China. Windows OS and Microsoft's localized software remain the most widespread, user-friendly and available software in the Chinese PC market, and most users are likely to stick with whatever is most convenient. Especially when they can get it from their neighborhood street merchant for next to nothing.

The fate of Linux in China isn't purely bound up in convenience, however. There is also the question of politics.

"Some of the Chinese people think the United States is not very friendly to China," says Danny Zeng, founder of the Beijing Linux Users Group, as we sip mango Frappuccinos in a new Starbucks in the Chaoyang District. Zeng, 29, is a network administrator for an American software company here called Synopsys. They use Windows 98.

His arms folded, Zeng leans back in his chair and cocks his head at me, staring with an exacting glare that suggests he is a true expert in his field. He points out that political events in the news fuel a kind of mistrust among Chinese of American products.

"There may be some people in the U.S. who look at China as an enemy or a competitor," Zeng said, pointing out that American sales of F-16 fighter planes to Taiwan throughout the 1990s did not go overlooked by the masses in China. "Taiwan is an enemy of China, so some of them think the U.S. is befriending the enemy," Zeng said, adding that the controversial prosecution of Wen Ho Lee last year in the so-called China espionage case has also soured America's public image among many Chinese.

The relatively high cost of Windows licenses and reports of "back door" files that supposedly give the company -- and possibly the National Security Agency -- access to individual users' files also have resulted in a buzz of protest among the Chinese PC community and in high-tech government departments. The buzz was fueled last year by a book written by Juliet Wu, who had been general manager of Microsoft China. In "Against the Wind: Microsoft, IBM, and Me," Wu criticized Microsoft's high prices and punitive approach to solving the piracy problem in China. The book became a hot seller and helped to bring anti-Microsoft sentiment down to the grass-roots level in China.

Political tension smoothly translates into distrust of economic exploitation. Zeng founded the Beijing Linux Users Group in July 1998. Club meetings are held on the first Sunday of every month, he says, and sometimes they are sprinkled with venting sessions about Microsoft's high prices and strict policies. People indignantly shout things like: "If you buy a Windows OS for yourself, you cannot also install it on your son's PC!"

Staring at the street outside Starbucks, it's easy to see why pricing matters. Outside the cafe, the vast majority of the people on the street have no taste for coffee, preferring tea. But even if they do enjoy the roasted bean, most people in rural areas of China must work two days to earn enough money to afford just one cafe latte at Starbucks.

Sun Yufang, chairman of a government-funded Linux distribution called Red Flag Software Corp., emphasizes the economic reasons China must find an alternative to the Windows platform. In his office, Sun pointed to the government-issue map of the People's Republic of China that hung above my head, and proudly informed me that there are 870,000 schools in China -- not including universities. All of them are going to need to get wired with computer systems, he explained.

"If all these schools buy computers and software, you're talking about an astronomical amount of money," says Sun. Even if Microsoft gave a 50 percent discount to the buyers of the 5 million computers that will be purchased this year throughout China, the company would still make $625 million.

"That is just too much money for the Chinese government and the Chinese people to bear. China is still very poor," Sun said. "Without our own operating system we can't do anything, we're completely at the mercy of Microsoft."

Red Flag Software will begin its advance into the education market by sending 2,000 free copies of the Linux OS to schools around the country as an experiment, says Sun.

There are also cultural reasons Chinese people are so angry at Microsoft, adds Sun, whose office is in the Chinese Academy of Science's Software Park in Zhongguancun (China's emerging equivalent to Silicon Valley).

"When Windows 2000 first came out, Microsoft was selling it for 1,999 renminbi. To Chinese people, this was a very insulting figure, because everybody knows that they are essentially getting RMB 2,000 from every buyer. So many people just said 'keep the change,' with a kind of an attitude," Sun said.

But even the double whammy of price and politics isn't enough to slow the advance of Microsoft software. Yan Ting, who began using Linux in 1993, argues that Linux requires a minimum familiarity with English. This scares many people away in China, where most are easily intimidated by a computer, much less a foreign language.

"Freeware will always be used less in China than in foreign countries," says Yan, pointing out that most Western languages share a single alphabet. "Chinese is very strange. The characters and the pronunciation are both very different from English."

There is a feeling among many Chinese that computers are a totally Western creation, Yan says, and many people view them as a kind of Trojan horse.

"Many people feel this way, not just me," says Yan. While Yan might be taking things a little too far, user-friendliness is certainly going to be a factor in a country that does not have a long history of working with computers.

Every Linux user I met believed that average PC owners in China would prefer to use the Windows operating system because of its user-friendliness and its Chinese interface. Another stumbling block for the Linux OS is that many key Chinese-language applications, such as word processors and games, are only developed for Windows. And when piracy is as high as it is in China (most experts estimate that 90 percent of the Windows operating systems in use are unlicensed copies), it is easy for economically strapped families and businesses to latch on to Microsoft products.

Linux will not be taken up by households in China unless all popular programs and games are made for Linux as well, says Danny Huang, marketing manager at Red Flag, which is funded by a venture capital company run by President Jiang Zemin's son, Jiang Mianheng.

"It's very hard to provide a product that compares to the one they have in their hands right now," Huang said, referring to the Chinese language versions of the Windows operating system and application suites, such as Microsoft Office. Huang believes that within two or three years Linux will be adopted within commercial, educational and government environments, but that the majority of families will still be using Windows.

Among the handful of Linux distributions that offer downloadable and CD-ROM operating systems with Chinese language interfaces, most have not attained the approval of Linux users here. According to a recent survey by a Linux convention organizer, Sky Events, 55.8 percent of mainland Chinese Linux users prefer to use Red Hat Linux, which is not offered in Chinese, because it is more stable than the distributions that have been localized.

Danny Zeng pointed out that application development for Linux is hindered because people in the free software community are not accustomed to paying for software.

"How do they make money? That's one thing that confuses me," says Zeng, although it was difficult to tell whether he was being rhetorical.

Government encouragement can only go so far. In China, where much of the press still functions as a mouthpiece for the government, PC users are officially called upon to use domestic software and operating systems, said Wu Gang, who runs computer training schools in four different parts of the city. Still, none of his courses teach students to use Linux. It's not that he's opposed to teaching Linux -- in fact he claims to be interested in the open-source system -- but his schools take their cues from the market, and not a single applicant has ever requested a course in Linux programming.

"If students require Linux classes, we'll teach it," said Wu, whose school uses mostly pirated versions of Microsoft 98, according to a teacher in the school.

Wu's position on piracy is that if there is a licensed version made available to him, he'd rather use it. "But if not, I'll definitely use the pirated one," he said. According to a teacher in his school, most of Wu's computers are set up with pirated versions of Windows 95 and 98.

Wang Baomin, a 19-year-old computer teacher and an early Linux adopter, points out that the computer revolution has not even scratched the surface in China, and that there is still a long way to go before the masses are online. He believes that as the people in China's poor and rural areas begin to be able to afford computers, there is potential to see a widespread adoption of Linux.

"Computers themselves haven't yet reached many parts of China. Many people around the country have only heard of computers, but never actually seen one," said Wang, who comes from a village a few hundred miles away, where only a tiny minority of people can afford computers.

"In our village, getting on the Internet is seen as very expensive," said Wang, whose father broke the bank when he bought a computer for Wang and his brother in 1997. That year the first telephone lines were brought into their village. Most of the 1.3 billion people in China dwell in similarly underdeveloped areas.

The economics of computing in China have led to the kind of contradiction that Mao Zedong would have loved. Because of the lack of computer geeks and Linux-compatible Chinese language software applications China, Linux-based operating systems do not meet the needs of the Chinese market. But economic circumstances are also preventing Microsoft from taking over China's computer world with licensed, purchased, "accounted for" Windows operating systems. Piracy rules -- and given the current public animosity targeted at Microsoft, most people don't see it as a problem.

A massive installation of Linux in government departments and schools across the country could be a precursor to family use when today's rural youth grow up, make money, move into the cities and buy computers for their children. But that scenario is still far away. Wang now lives in the city, where he gets paid a paltry $75 per month. Oh, and they provide a place for him to sleep.

How many copies of Windows do you think he can afford?

Jonah Greenberg

Jonah Greenberg is a reporter for Virtual China who frequently writes about Chinese society and technology.

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