Microsoft reorients itself

As Hu Jintau hoists chopsticks with Bill Gates, Microsoft and China have never looked closer. Yet there's more to dealing with dragons than money and handshakes

Congratulations to the People's Republic of China and Microsoft on forming an alliance that unites two great movements for enlightenment and freedom! President Hu Jintao's first official meeting on American soil is with Bill Gates, a symbolic event showing just how close the two have become.

It was not always like this. Microsoft's first dealings in China were masterpieces of the misstep. It shipped software into China from Taiwan, not noticing that a rogue programmer had inserted political messages. It took Chinese organisations to court for intellectual-property infringement while talking about turning them into paying customers by getting them "addicted" — echoes of the opium wars that did not go unnoticed.

All that is water under the Willow Pattern. China has said it will force all PC manufacturers to ship with 'genuine' software, legitimise government use and actively help hunt down intellectual-property offenders. In exchange, Microsoft has done multiple deals with PC makers and other agencies in China to provide legal Windows at a much-reduced cost and is investing heavily in government schemes.

That's mostly good news; everyone wants to see more realistic pricing for Windows and properly policed intellectual property. But the discussions that aren't reported are the ones that matter more: what degree of input is the Chinese state getting in the development and regulation of Microsoft's software and services? Whose side will the software company be on when next an MSN user says something Beijing doesn't like — and will the government look askance at public criticism of its new best friend?

We'll find out. One thing is for sure: this deal will stick. In China, Microsoft has at last found a state where abuse of monopoly is not only allowed but expected; in Microsoft, China has a partner whose skill at saving face and maintaining control would have impressed a Ming emperor. Truly, the two are the sun and rain refreshing and invigorating the rice fields of progress.