Open Eyes, Open Source

Over the past year, I wrote several pieces about the open-source software boom in China. During that time, I was mostly silent about a related topic: the Chinese government.

Matthew McKenzie, Contributor

June 30, 2005

4 Min Read

Over the past year, I wrote several pieces about the open-source software boom in China. During that time, I was mostly silent about a related topic: the Chinese government.

It's time to tackle the issue of doing business in the world's most dynamic open-source market -- which also happens to be the world's biggest police state.

This is a difficult topic that defies black-and-white interpretation as few topics ever will. When I take a stand, I don't take it lightly. Legitimate political systems rightly reflect the world's cultural and social diversity; anyone who judges another political system from the outside does so at their own risk.

Yet there are lines no human being should cross, lines beyond which cultural difference isn't an explanation -- it's an excuse, and a pathetic one.

The current Chinese regime crosses those lines regularly, excessively, and with obvious relish. As the direct heirs of their Maoist predecessors, the current leadership must also answer for past atrocities that quite possibly exceed the horrors of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin. It's a system that would collapse if it stopped murdering enough of its opponents.

People who do business here are obligated to walk away from certain "opportunities," no matter how lucrative they may be. This isn't an opinion. It's a fact.

This isn't the time or the place, however, for political naivete. What kind of executive rules out doing any kind of business in China, for any reason? An umemployed executive -- and not a very bright one, either.

It's entirely possible for open-source organizations to work in China without, to borrow a page from Larry Page's and Sergey Brin's playbook, "being evil." In fact, I think it's essential for them to do business in China, whenever and wherever they can. When you consider what the Chinese people could do -- and someday will do -- without a bunch of murderous thugs tapping their phones, the possibilities are mind-boggling.

I think it's even possible to work with the Chinese government -- given crystal-clear knowledge of where, why, and for whom a company is working, and understanding that, at this point, ignorance and complicity are the same thing.

Returning again to the example of Google (not an open-source company, but still a fellow traveler), the company in 2003 had a highly-publicized brush with Chinese political censors over search results dealing with taboo topics.

Some people remain upset at Google's willingness even to discuss the matter with Chinese officials -- although, for the record, Sergey Brin has stated that Google didn't change anything on its own servers as a result of those discussions. I think Google's management used both common sense and common decency to shape their response: The company would not censor itself to suit the Chinese government, but it accepted that the Chinese would impose limited censorship on its own. I doubt anyone could have done better under the circumstances.

(An aside: I know that Google does censor search results to meet some European countries' laws against right-wing extremist propaganda. I think such laws are a poor way to deal with hate speech, but they are by no means tyrannical. I find comparisons of these cases to China's difficult even to take seriously.)

On the other hand, China's "national firewall," set up primarily to impose political censorship and to stifle dissent, relies upon someone's servers and some sort of operating system -- very possibly Linux. Is it all home-rolled infrastructure? Did a foreign company provide one or both products? Did they do so with the knowledge, however tenuous, it would serve this role?

Like I said, I know "too far" when I see it -- and here it is.

A final thought for today: This is an area where codes of conduct and the like are more than just high-fallutin' phrases to frame and hang next to those Successories I can't believe you really bought. In fact, these types of professional codes can provide real guidance when a company weighs its business options within the borders of a police state.

Next time, I'll take a look at a couple of typical codes of conduct and ask: Can the group promoting a particular ethical code snuggle up to Evil and still claim it plays by the rules? And if they can, is the ethical code doing more harm than good?

I'll also look at another aspect of this complex issue: How can open-source software help Chinese democrats do their thing, without ending up in prison or with bullets in their heads?

In the meantime, if you have any thoughts on this subject, feel free to share them. I read everything people send, and don't be surprised if you get a long-winded response.

Matt McKenzie is editor of Linux Pipeline. A permanent link to this column is available here.

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