Open source has moved into the political spotlight amid the US-China tech conflict as China remains heavily reliant on key US software - whether it's proprietary, licensed software such as crucial chip architecture sets by Intel and Google's Android operating system, or open-sourced tools that are freely available such as programming languages like Python and deep-learning frameworks. Open source is crucial to ensuring access to a lot of this foreign software and is therefore receiving government support.
The quest for technological self-reliance
Developing a homegrown open-source ecosystem serves multiple, interrelated objectives. It can help Chinese companies gain a stronger bargaining position relative to Western software suppliers and reduce technology licensing fees. Additionally, Beijing sees it as a strategic lever for boosting China’s ICT industry and innovation capabilities. The country’s ambition to become a leader in emerging technologies creates further momentum. Homegrown open-source products offer greater technical independence and controllability, and therefore serve Beijing’s goal of mastering its own “secure and controllable” core technologies.
US-China tech decoupling has added urgency to the government’s embrace of open source. Although open-source soft- and hardware, with the exception of encryption and decryption code, appear to be largely spared from US export controls, making open-source communities a bridge between Chinese developers and foreign technologies, future US actions might restrict some of these exchanges. Students at Chinese universities blacklisted for their military ties lost access to MATLAB in June 2020. Beijing is preparing for the worst-case scenario by investing in the domestic open-source ecosystem.
The government is also turning to open-source projects to boost self-sufficiency in hardware, especially semiconductors. Beijing’s support for the open-source chip project RISC-V aims to reduce reliance on expensive – and in the future potentially inaccessible – chip design architecture licensed by companies like Intel. RISC-V design architecture can be used free-of-charge to develop Chinese processors. Though RISC-V International – the nonprofit that freely publishes the documents defining RISC-V – is not subject to export controls, China preemptively established a China RISC-V Industry Consortium to promote domestic adoption of the architecture. The Shanghai government even offers subsidies for companies working with RISC-V.
Moreover, open-source technologies play a role in industrial digitalization, whereby resources are made freely available so that companies can integrate digital technologies, such as cloud and big data, for example through industrial APPs. The government wants to create an “open-source ecosystem for digital transformation,” where companies open their core technologies for use by traditional industries.
Support through public procurement, community-building and project incubation
Beijing is strategically pushing to create a strong Chinese open-source ecosystem shielded from geopolitical actions. In June 2020, China established its first open-source software foundation, the OpenAtom Foundation. Notably, the foundation was announced after GitHub’s restriction of access for developers based in US-sanctioned Iran raised alarm in China’s tech industry.
Github has shown interest in establishing a subsidiary in China, the company’s second most important market. Yet, while the MIIT has welcomed this, the ministry is simultaneously betting on Gitee by handpicking it to construct an “independent, open-source hosting platform for China.” Gitee may become a viable alternative if enough Chinese developers are willing to migrate to it.
In addition to supporting Gitee, the government is also backing several open-source alliances and organizations, which bring together government agencies, industry, research institutions, NGOs and individual developers. These alliances aim to perform the functions of dominant US-led communities, such as technical and operational support, governance and project incubation.
Open-source collaboration is especially central to China’s AI development strategy, which emphasizes the development of platforms where resources are openly shared. Achieving breakthroughs in AI open-source development is seen as essential to achieving China’s goal of global dominance in AI. The public-private platform OpenI is just one of the efforts underway and China’s 14th Five-Year Plan explicitly encourages the development of open-source algorithms in the context of AI innovation.