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Aiding and Abetting China?

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On a daily basis, Linux Today gets submitted story contributions to stories that don't quite fit the editorial model of the site. Today was no exception, as I received a link to an interesting story from the BBC highlighting Microsoft's internal debate on whether to stop doing business with mainland China because of the continued abuses of human rights in that nation.

Since it didn't deal with Linux or open source, I didn't link to the story from LT. But it did get me to thinking... suppose Microsoft actually did decide to do the right thing and discontinue doing business with China? What would that mean for Linux? Perhaps a great deal--and possibly not all of it good.

First off, let's be clear: I don't really expect Redmond to drop China as a customer for something as noble as human rights and freedom of expression abuses, as the BBC story outlines. As cynical as I am, I expect that if Microsoft was considering such a move, the real motivation would be likely because it felt it was about to lose the market for other, more business-oriented reasons. Personally, I would hope that this line of thinking is wrong, but that's because my belief system tries to see the best in everyone. Realistically, I think any change in Microsoft-China relations will be a business decision, because I find it hard to believe that Redmond would drop 1.3 billion potential customers for anything else.

My suspicion is that the real reason for a pull-out are Redmond's two bugaboos: piracy and open source software. (Microsoft loves to imply that they are actually one and the same, but I think we're all smart enough to recognize that as a line of FUD.) In short, by illegitimate and legitimate means, Microsoft is about to get its butt kicked and wants to save face and retreat on "ethical" reasons.

For now, let's put aside Microsoft's true motivations and ask where would such a withdraw leave China? Actually, not in too bad of shape, no matter what Microsoft might think. Whether piracy is a big problem or not in China, you can bet your boots that if Redmond stopped commercial relations with Chinese customers, piracy sure as heck would become rampant very shortly thereafter. And on the legal side of the equation, China is already making moves towards shifting its IT infrastructure towards Linux. In fact, this is the reason that I think Microsoft is contemplating its “moral withdraw,” but admittedly I'm biased.

Those interested in maintaining legal IT setups would very likely migrate to Linux and other open source software. In fact, I would imagine the Chinese government would encourage them to do so. Which would put Linux in an interesting position indeed.

The positives seem self-evident: one of the world's most powerful nations advocating a shift to the Linux operating system. The demand for Linux and open source tools would be much higher, and we could start to see a strong rise in application development.

The negative: we're talking about China, a country that modeled its form of communism more on the Josef Stalin model than the Vladimir Lenin model, and continues to exercise strong-arm tactics in keeping its population in check. Linux, because of its free and open nature, would be used to potentially assist such a nation in keeping their nation going. Worse, since Linux surpasses other technologies in several areas, China's IT would become better than a lot of other nations still dependent on Microsoft.

Granted, I think Red Hat, Novell, and other commercial Linux vendors might follow Microsoft's "example" and eventually pull out of China. But even if they did, it wouldn't stop Linux deployments by Chinese vendors. Also, there could be a strong stigma in knowing that Linux was the operating system of choice for mainland China. Such a cutoff would probably embolden the Chinese developers to take away open software advances and not give back, since it is very unlikely the GPL could be enforced in such a hostile commercial and legal environment.

My optimistic goal would be that Linux' very open nature would be the thing that would help Chinese systems that there might be a better way of governing themselves in their grasp. But again, I admit to rampant idealism.

Would more Chinese reliance on Linux be a good thing or a bad thing for Linux? My gut says it's not going to be very bittersweet.


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