Is China an open source friend or foe?

Is China an open source friend or foe?

Summary: Just because China has made it government policy to support open source does not make open source a government plot.


RedFlag Linux screen from WikipediaBig Money Matt Asay opened up on China's demand that Internet cafes install its Red Flag Linux this morning, suggesting authoritarianism at work.

Having lived under U.S. government spying for most of this decade, I am more likely to see shades of gray here.

First, note this is a local story. The demand for using licensed copies of Red Flag Linux is datelined Nanchang, not Beijing.

America has stupid local government tricks, too. I try not to overgeneralize from them. I live in Georgia.

Second, why assume this is some nefarious plot by the central government? That's for paranoid lefty bloggers. It's just possible this is a shakedown by some local official for license revenues.

Third, even if Red Flag Linux is government-sponsored, is it not still open source code? If backdoors are going into the kernel users can see them, or at least the CIA can. As opposed to, say, Windows.

More to the point, how effectively do any laws work in China? There is a difference between blocking foreign Web sites and monitoring everyone's Internet traffic looking for terrorists.

None of this is meant to imply, in any way, that China is somehow free and America is somehow repressed. But the question is not nearly so black-and-white as it once was.

As the Internet and open source grow everywhere, this will be increasingly true. Even if technical means give you warning, there is just too much chaff to be certain that something is going on and prevent it from happening.

This is simple, messy reality. Just because China has made it government policy to support open source does not make open source a government plot.

Not so long as we can see the code.

Topics: China, Browser, Government, Government US, Linux, Open Source, Operating Systems, Software

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  • It's classic agitprop ...

    The story came from Radio Free Asia, which is a U.S government funded station and an outlet for U.S propaganda. How do I know this station is an outlet for U.S propaganda? Because Radio Free Asia cannot be broadcast back into the U.S because it violates anti-propaganda laws in this country.

    If there is any substance to these claims of "suggesting" the use of Red Flag Linux over Windows it's most likely that some low level officials are getting some kickbacks from Red Flag so their putting the "kebosh" on these internet cafes. The Chinese for quite some time have been "uber capitalist" while communism has taken a back seat. :D
    • This is possible

      I don't think the source of the story is much of an
      issue in this case.But I did suggest this might just
      be a license shakedown on the part of the local
      • It's the tail wagging the dog ...

        When Senator Ileana Ros-Lehtinen starts crying about how China is forcing Linux on internet cafe owners using this to install censorship and surveillance measures than you know it's agitprop just to score political points:

        Remember, she's the one that recommends assassinating foreign heads of state, then lies about it and is contradicted on video. China must have "closed the bank window" for their country's greatest debtor the United States since politicians all of a sudden have made China into the new whipping boy. :D
  • MS probably didn't think this through.

    There has been a BOATLOAD of pressure on China to clean up unlicensed software use, and they are doing do. Not in the way MS hoped, enforcing purchase of licensed Windows but by becoming compliant with Open Source.

    You can read about it here.

    Does anything think this isn't pressure from MS. Anyway, the government is very strongly pushing Open Source, 70% of developers in China are developing for/on Open Source and this is probably a very public way of demonstrating that rampant piracy is being controlled. If all internet cafe's show fully licensed software, they publicly show progress and get closer to WTO acceptance.

    It is ironic that MS's plan may actually hasten their lost dominance. Shame Net Applications can't measure Asian Open Source adoption.

    • But can we see the code?

      If we can see the code that's being written for Red
      Flag Linux, which we have a legal right to, doesn't
      that help the U.S. as well?
      • Not sure I follow.

        Open Source development in China will be a boon everywhere. Anyone who thinks that Asian development on a large scale won't make Open Source better is crazy. You can expect to see it embedded even more due to cost/flexibility, etc.

        My only point in my first reply, I think the push to Red Flag and Open Source is in response to MS pressure through the state department to push China into what it hoped would be a sea of revenue. :D

    • Keep on dreaming TripleII. For China it's still pirated Windows..

      ...and its wide array of third party applications. Why not try going to East Asian countries and take a look at the Malls. You'll see the hottest selling pirated softwares. It's Windows and Windows-based software. And mind you, they still cost the average person a day's wage. And most if not all of these pirated softwares originated from China.
      People there would rather spend money than download free crapware.
      • How do you eat an elephant... byte at a time. It can't/won't happen overnight, however, the winds of change are coming, specifically because of MS fueled pressure and China wanting to be in the WTO. The writing is on the wall...
        [B]Open source code is now used by over 70 per cent of software developers in Asia, according to a new report.[/B]

        It doesn't matter how entrenched or pervasive a technology is, when the majority of developers move on to something else, it is simply a matter of time. That is one big ol elephant that will take a long time to eat, but eaten it will be.

  • Key points

    1) They are not forcing the them to use Red Flag, they are forcing them to use licensed binaries. The internet cafes are not free to take the open source Red Flag, compile it, use it, and call themselves compliant. What's in the licensed binaries and what's in the source code are two different things and if you think you're ever going to see what's in the source used to build the licensed binaries you're dreaming.

    2) The CIA always has and alway will have access to the source for all versions of windows.

    3) If you think all your internet activity isn't being watched in either China or America you should think again.
    Johnny Vegas
    • First point is nonsense

      You assume the CIA has Windows but we can't see what
      is in those licensed binaries of Red Flag Linux?
      • Not assuming you cant see it

        if you decompile it but that it doesn't match the distro source. And that the ones running the internet cafe chains are perfectly capable of downloading and installing a distro themselves for free which I'm sure they'd have done rather than having

        "Our district cultural management authorities came and installed the new Red Flag Linux in all of our 13 Internet cafes"

        for a steep fee by China standards

        "the new system requires a licensing fee of 5,000 yuan (about U.S. $726)"

        "Cafe owners complained online this week about paying licensing fees for an operating system that can be downloaded free..."

        "We have already started installing the new software in all Internet cafes. All of them must have this new one,? the official said."

        "But reports in China?s official media indicate that Internet cafes in other cities have also switched to Red Flag Linux..."

        "On Aug. 11, 2006, China Computer Journal reported that, after a July 28, 2006 conference in Fuzhou, ?relevant leaders from Fuzhou toured a Red Flag Linux promotion Internet cafe. More than 100 computers at this Internet cafe, which is located in the center of the city, have installed the Red Flag Linux software.?

        "And on Dec. 11, 2007, an official Web site known as ?It Experts? reported that Red Flag Linux ?satisfactorily resolved many of the problems plaguing the more than 200 Internet cafes in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia.."

        "Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at the University of California-Berkeley, said he sees the move to Linux as an effort to tighten censorship and step up surveillance online.

        ?It mainly means [a] less secure and private communication environment for netizens in those Internet cafes,? Xiao said. ?The authorities are gaining more control"

        "An Internet cafe owner surnamed Chen said the switch was unwelcome. ?Every Internet cafe has to install the new software though none of us wants it. There?s no other choice,? he said."

        "Maybe the local Public Security office can make some new money from the Internet cafe owners because they will have to buy it, but the owners will likely reinstall Windows to make their customers happy,? Xia said, calling the 5,000-yuan licensing fee ?crazy."
        Johnny Vegas
    • Where did you see this?

      [B]they are forcing them to use licensed binaries.[/B]

      I followed every link and side link and only saw that they are forced to use Red Flag official, which you are free to try out here if you want.

      Doesn't seem like they can hide much since the CIA can see whatever it is they are monitoring if they want to. Any stealth reporting would be trivial to see.

      • just followed the links

        a the excerpts in my above reply were snipped at from the one at
        Johnny Vegas
        • You must have got the memo ....

          Your source is tainted, not credible, and is being used as a political soap box as I have indicated here:

          and here:

  • Can you google "china internet censorship"

    You'll find many many non biased sources reporting the same sorts of things. Or maybe you could move there and use the internet from there. I'm sure they'd appreciate your fondness for koolaid. Just don't forget you're required to register with the police to sign up for internet access.
    Johnny Vegas
  • Fundamental problem with FOSS

    Freedom, in this case, or in the future, or has allready happened many times. is that this can happen.

    Being able to do what you like with the code, as it is open means that repressive regemes can (and probably has in this case), used it to their advantage. and there is basically NOTHING FSF can do about it.

    There is nothing stopping someone, (either individual, group, government) to get the source code, put in their own spyware, backdoors or user monitoring, create a binary and distribute it, so few people compite their own code, that it could easily be done.

    This means you basically cannot trust any source, unless you are willing to go through every line of the source code, for the kernal and all apps and libs for anything sus.

    Most if not all third parties do not have the time or skills to do this, they just have to trust what they are given in source or binaries are good and secure.

    Criminal elements, rogue or oppressive governments or any hacker with criminal intent could do this, and do you think the GPL would stop them ???? NO.

    This is a major reason why Linux/FLOSS is a flawed model from the start.

    Even google laughes in the face of the GPL and FSF, they take GPL code, modify it and use it for their own use but they do not give back.

    Most in not all Linux users just install the binaries and packages and will never compile apps or kernel from source. and the small percentage that does will probably not be willing to go through the 1.4 millions lines of code for the kernel and look for backdoors and security breaches.

    The freedom so loved in FOSS has been removed, and your license and model ensures we as users have less and less freedoms, if you had your way would would not even be able to choose between FOSS and windows.

    And what happens when a government mandates that you will use THIS binary and no others, or nothing at all.

    how is that freedom.

    we just have to trust that the distros are being honest. we've lost that freedom.

    and i assume they would be able to tell if their code (in Red Flag has been modified) would be to compile the source and see if the files (binaries) are different sizes !!!.

    Grep the two and decompile the variations.

    No one will follow the GPL if big companies refuse too, why should anyone.

    (and no one should trust google, they have a woefull track record).
    • You're making assumptions, not facts.

      It isn't surprising to hear the allegation the
      Chinese move is for monitoring purposes.
      Without a doubt they probably have stuck a
      routine somewhere in the init process to do
      just that. However the Chinese are also a very
      proud people, and their own distribution
      supports the Chinese language and keyboards to
      a higher degree than other distributions
      outside the country. It also allows them to
      work on complying with their obligations to the
      WTO on reducing piracy. Despite MS public
      posting to the contrary, the Chinese government
      and people don't want to be beholden to
      Redmond, or any other foreign country. In order
      to reduce piracy, they must move their people
      off the MS paradigm and onto something they
      have control over. It is a cultural thing as
      well as governmental control. Yet that is the
      Chinese culture, and how it has been for
      thousands of years. Authoritarian government
      processes are nothing new and have existed for
      centuries. It is only gilded under a different
      name now, just as Russia's totalitarianism
      didn't radically change with removal of the
      Czar, only the names changes. The peasants
      still lived in squalor and remained poor much
      as they do today. Except they aren't called
      peasants anymore, but 'citizens'.

      With regard to Google, it is taking the GPL
      code, and modifying it, but it is not
      distributing it. Thus it is in no way violating
      the GPL in spirit or means. On the flip side,
      it has returned much back to the community in
      the form of open code and APIs (albeit some is
      only useful if you connect to them). Their
      support of Python is a prime example. Hiring
      the chief contributor, paying him well, and
      allowing him to spend 50%+ time on it alone is
      an example of how other companies can embrace
      FOSS code, and keep their own support costs low
      while supporting the FOSS community at the same

      Aside from the fact the Chinese government
      probably has built in some back doors to it's
      own version (which it could do with Windows as
      well in the form of a rootkit or device
      driver), your premises sound more like sour
      grapes than valid concerns.
  • Did you read Asay Dana?

    The government is giving them only a choice between Windows and Red Flag which costs the equivalent of $725 to use.

    This violates the principles of FOSS on so many levels...

    I'm also not surprised that your political mental disorder would somehow cause you to make this about the eeevvviiiiilll US. The fact that you would attempt to engage in an equivalence argument is just looney Dana.
    Tim Patterson
    • Actually I read the original stories and commentaries as well

      This reads like a local shake-down to me, not a
      national policy. If the Red Flag Linux were evil, and
      the Chinese government also evil, then it would be
      forced on everyone, don't you think?

      The real problem here is that tyranny breeds
      inefficiency. Our attempts to control the population
      track nicely with the collapse of our economy from the
      • So what are you saying Dana?

        The very socialist tendencies you appear to have based on your various postings contradict what you're saying here.

        Socialism == tyranny

        Forced redistribution of wealth is tyranny. With every instance of dependence on a nanny-state comes more control by that same nanny-state.

        My initial reply was based on Asay's posting yesterday dealing with the facts on the ground. I don't know if this is localized or possibly targeted to the region which is considered the worst offenders. My main issue with this is in the fact that these internet cafes cannot choose one of the free distros. They are limited to either Windows or Red Flag which costs the US equivalent of $725.

        I also have a problem with domestic spying in violation of Constitutional protections but to use a story about the evils of the Chinese regime to somehow indict the US is ridiculous Dana.
        Tim Patterson