Early today, we wrote about allegations in the Chinese press that Cisco has been working with the NSA to help the US spy on China. And needless to say, in the wake of this news — even if it is questionably-sourced at this point — there have been calls for China to divest itself from American technology. Whether or not that’s the right solution is debatable, but I want to address a larger problem: is it even possible?
One of the first things that struck me as odd about the alleged Cisco-NSA connection is that while Cisco isn’t one of the nine companies implicated in the original PRISM scandal, Microsoft is. And so are Apple and Google. Collectively, those three American companies are responsible for creating the operating systems that run nearly 100 percent of China’s desktop computers and more than 95 percent of its smartphones.
China can replace Cisco hardware with hardware from a domestic telecom equipment maker like Huawei, but its entire computing environment both in desktop and mobile will still be based on American technology. And replacing American operating systems will be quite a bit harder than replacing American routers. A few months ago I translated a bit of an opinion piece by Chinese tech reporter Ji Yongqing that provides very relevant reading on this topic; Ji argues that China has basic, systemic obstacles that prevent it from being able to produce a viable domestic mobile operating system. Though Ji was talking only about mobile operating systems, many of his arguments are equally applicable to desktop operating systems.
Indeed, most of China’s home-grown operating systems have been forks or skins of Western-developed systems, like the many Chinese Android forks or this impressive Chinese Linux distribution. To create a new operating system without using foreign systems at all, Chinese researchers would basically have to start from scratch as there aren’t any home-grown products they can build off. And even if they did manage to create a functional OS within a year or two, how could it possibly compete with OS X or Windows, which have been in constant development for decades? Chinese businesses aren’t going to switch to a less functional or less stable operating system unless they’re forced to.
Moreover, the continued popularity of Windows XP in China shows that users in the country are especially resistant to any change in operating system, meaning that even if China did create a viable domestic alternative, it would likely struggle to get people to actually use it. And of course, any government-supported project would invite concerns from many users about privacy and surveillance too. From the perspective of the average Chinese user, it may be better to be spied on by a foreign government (which can’t do much to you) than by the domestic one.
In short, while China may spend the next few months ripping Cisco’s hardware out of its internet, the day China can say its tech industry doesn’t rely on international tech companies is still a very long way off. I’d be willing to bet that five years from now, most Chinese people will still be using Windows computers and Android phones. If this NSA scandal sparks a flurry of interest in domestic R&D, then perhaps a true Chinese alternative could be available somewhere further down the line. But China simply isn’t getting away from American technology anytime soon when almost all of its computers and mobile devices run American-made operating systems.