Flag of inconvenience

Fearing the Taiwanese flag would irk China, Red Hat yanked it from its version of Linux -- and started an international geek uproar.

Published October 31, 2002 6:44PM (EST)

On Oct. 2, Chang Chung-Yen, a Taiwanese Linux enthusiast, was startled to find that his country had been erased. While fiddling around with the desktop interface included with Red Hat Linux 8.0, he discovered that no matter what he tried, he couldn't get Taiwan's flag to show up when he configured the system for his country and language.

The KDE desktop included with Red Hat has excellent tools for adapting the operating system for different languages, and Chang was well familiar with them. A programmer who works for a voice-over-IP company in Taiwan, Chang is a member of the Chinese Linux Extension project, which provides a suite of Chinese add-ons to GNU-Linux operating systems. He has also volunteered on a team that works specifically on adapting KDE for Chinese use.

He knew that when he picked out his country and language, a window should pop up that would include a small image of Taiwan's flag next to the country's name. And even though all the other countries in the window had their flags readily apparent, when he saw that Taiwan's was missing, he first thought he must have made a mistake. Maybe he'd forgotten to install some necessary piece of the operating system.

Further sleuthing revealed that he had made no error. Other distributions of Linux-based operating systems included the flag in their KDE packages, as did the source code for KDE itself. Chang alerted the Chinese-Linux using world, and in the lightning-fast way that these things happen over the Net, word raced out across bulletin boards and mailing lists, blogs and geeky news sites.

Closer examination revealed the ultimate indignity -- the presence of Taiwan's flag had been deemed "a bug" by Red Hat! Boycotts were organized, Taiwanese Linux fans started switching over to alternative distributions such as Mandrake and Debian, and recriminations flew through cyberspace.

Once again, the political rivalry between the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China on Taiwan has reared its ugly head in the world of computing. China considers Taiwan a rebel province, and frowns upon any symbolic representation of Taiwanese independence. So Red Hat, mindful of the size of the Chinese software market, removed the flag on the advice of its "internationalization group" because, according to Red Hat legal counsel Mark Webbink, "China does not approve of the use of any reference to Taiwan and could have blocked the product from being imported into China if the flag remained." Later, in response to the uproar that move provoked, Red Hat announced that all flags from every country will be removed from its version of KDE. But that hasn't done much to assuage the feelings of aggrieved Taiwanese.

Chinese computing has been politicized before. But the flag incident may be the first time that free or open-source software has become embroiled in the long-running conflict between Taiwan and mainland China. And that's significant, because free software itself has an ineluctable political component. By shrugging off the strictures of proprietary code, by declaring that it is not bound by geographical barriers or corporate mandates, free software -- in which code is freely available to all for reproduction or modification -- has been adopted around the world as an alternative way of doing business. In fact, both China and Taiwan have explicitly promoted free and open-source software as an alternative to Microsoft, for political and economic reasons.

Red Hat has historically been one of the prime leaders in commercializing free software, and the decision to remove Taiwan's flag for fear of offending the PRC is yet another sign that the struggle to make money off of free software inevitably involves some unsavory decisions. It's probably unlikely that this particular move will have any significant impact on Red Hat's success marketing Linux, but in a world where reputation is gold, Red Hat is suddenly a bit tarnished.

Taiwan, an island populated by some 21 million people, has played a disproportionately large role in the world's computing industry for decades. There was even a time, in the mid-'90s, when the country accounted for more Internet usage than all of Japan or mainland China. More generally, the worldwide community of overseas Chinese has also included a high number of computer scientists, and wherever they have gathered in cyberspace, political disagreements have always fueled debate.

In 1996, Taiwanese programmers inserted politically volatile catchphrases such as "Communist bandits" and "take back the mainland" into Chinese editing software for the Chinese version of Windows 95. Even earlier, Chinese computer scientists had struggled with the problems inherent in computerizing the two different versions of the Chinese character set employed by the mainland and Taiwan. China uses a "simplified" character set, under the rationale that literacy is easier to promote if there are fewer characters to learn. Taiwan uses the far more numerous "traditional" character set. The difference creates technical challenges that at one time were not trivial to solve, and political arguments sometimes infiltrated the technical debate.

Taiwanese patriots -- who, themselves, are divided into at least two groups, those who advocate Taiwanese independence and the dwindling group who believe that the Republic of China is still the rightful ruler of all China -- have long been accustomed to disrespect from the world community. Taiwan's 21 million is a tiny fraction of China's 1.3 billion; when decisions are made about markets, China trumps all. Taiwan is not a member of the United Nations, and is diplomatically recognized only by a handful of small, relatively unimportant nations.

But to have your national flag declared a software bug? Taiwan happens to be a fully democratic nation, in sharp contrast to the Communist regime in China or the one-party rule of Singapore. Taiwanese programmers have embraced Linux and other free software programs with open arms. The prospect of participating in a global community in which the efforts of all are freely shared is especially enticing to citizens of a small nation always looking over their shoulders at the brooding giant across the Taiwan Straits.

For "imacat," a Taiwanese programmer who manages the mailing list for the Taiwanese Linux Users Group, Red Hat's action is discrimination, pure and simple.

"I think it is an insult," he says. "I'm not a nationalist. I don't particularly like that flag, either. But, just because we are in Taiwan, we have to lose everything? Taking our flag away pleases some powerful big heads that don't like us, so that they no longer see our existence. But now nobody can see us. We become invisible. Our existence fades away ... That is discrimination, and it's very shameful that this discrimination happens in the open-source world, in which the society's achievements come from the efforts of its members ourselves."

Imacat noted that he is moving his three computers from Red Hat to Debian GNU/Linux. As for Red Hat's explanation that the mainland Chinese market required the removal of the flag, he says, "This can be reasonably understood as 'the existence of Taiwan would have prevented the introduction of Red Hat to the Mainland China ...' That is the discrimination that Red Hat does not admit, but we the Taiwan Linux community can clearly see and feel.

"We are no bug to no one. Removing one's existence to please another will make Red Hat a bad name in the history of human rights. I saw they decided to remove all the national flags in KDE. This may achieve some equality and avoid the discrimination. But that will not 'resolve any issue that may exist,' as they claimed. Next time the Chinese government may ask to [attach] a 'Province of China' after the phrase 'Taiwan,' as listed in the ISO-3166 [country codes]. Will we be removed again? This may happen again any time, as long as they don't start to learn to respect each individual community member that composes the Linux society."

Chang Chung-yen, the original discoverer of the missing flag, says that distinctions should be drawn between governments and software: "Let politics be politics, and open-source/free software be open-source/free software, I think."

His hope may be overly optimistic. With U.S. congressional representatives already beginning to marshal their forces against government adoption of free software licenses such as the GPL, it seems clear that politics and software are inextricably entwined. And as China's booming economy and surging computing sector continue to accelerate, software companies looking to do business with the Middle Kingdom will continue to kowtow to Chinese sensitivities.

The irony is that free software is all about choice, and technically speaking, there is nothing to prevent anyone from producing a version of Red Hat that includes Taiwan's flag, and one that doesn't. It's really just a matter of a couple of lines of code -- even Red Hat, theoretically, could produce multiple distributions.

Red Hat doesn't appear to be inclined to do so. According to legal counsel Mark Webbink, "If one assumes that the efforts of our engineers are free, then certainly it would be easy enough to have a different distribution for each market. However, such efforts are not free, and the cost to build and manage different distributions for each conceivable market would be staggering."

In the long run, expecting even as open-ended and cooperative a phenomenon as the free-software movement to provide for ways to make an end run around tensions across the Taiwan Straits is probably unrealistic. The problem won't go away until hostilities cease, no matter what the forum. And perhaps, in pursuit of that fix, Chinese computing will play a positive role.

Economic relations between Taiwan and the mainland are closer than ever before, and Taiwan's computing industry is playing a major role in that integration. Right now, Taiwanese capital and engineers are helping to duplicate Taiwan's computing success on the mainland on a colossal scale. In the environs of Shanghai, semiconductor manufacturing facilities modeled on Taiwan's hugely influential wafer foundries are popping up like, as the Chinese enjoy saying, "bamboo shoots after a spring rain."

In at least some respects, things always get easier with computers. Today, the once-formidable technical challenges involved with reconciling different Chinese character sets in ones and zeros are a footnote of computing history. Where a decade ago, getting your computer to display and print Chinese, online and off, could require endless tinkering and induce great frustration, now, it's hardly worth a thought. Most current browsers and operating systems and Chinese productivity applications allow effortless switching between both traditional and simplified characters, depending on the need.

Looking toward the future, is it too much to hope that, politically speaking, the interface between China and Taiwan might become as seamless, productive, and responsive to individual inclinations?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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