How China became a hero in open source

China's 10th five-year plan made software a priority, but Android made open source software a reality.

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Image: BirgitKorber, Getty Images/iStockphoto

China was once a relative zero when it came to software. Not anymore. In both proprietary and open source development, China's influence is growing. Sure, open source has helped to fuel that rise—as Swim.ai CTO Simon Crosby has suggested, "Now [China] can download our best, for free, every day"—but this tells an incomplete story. China may have been a net consumer of code once upon a time, but now has gone from zero to hero in open source.

Yes, really.

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Getting serious about software

China wasn't always a paragon of open source virtue. For that matter, the country didn't invest much in software, period. As Dr. Ying Li, VMware vice president in Greater China, has highlighted, China's 10th five-year plan (2001 - 2005) made software development a critical pillar of economic development:

[I]nformatization [sic?] is the key in promoting industrial advancement, industrialization and modernization. Therefore, national economic and social informatization should be the first priority. Putting effort into promoting national economic and social informatization is a strategic action in the fulfillment of the whole modernization construction plan. 

Not only was this a matter of economic development, Caywood stressed, but it was also a matter of national security: "China has very solid historical reasons for avoiding dependency on foreign tech without some access to (yes, I'll say it) the means of production. So do former subjects of various Euro empires, but for China that issue is at the core of the modern state."

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China, which had a software economy roughly 2% the size of the US in 1999, went into overdrive with this new five-year plan; however, China didn't actively participate in open source until 2011 when Android hit, according to Li. 

From there, China hasn't looked back. 

Open sourcing China

While imperfect measures, today Chinese developers make up the third-largest block of developers contributing to Cloud Native Computing Foundation projects (like Kubernetes), and the second-largest group contributing to GitHub-hosted repositories. That is impressive. It's also a matter of self-interest, as ever with open source.

According to Caywood, this heavy involvement comes down to two reasons: "It's first order defensive from the Chinese standpoint, and then about making sure they can integrate effectively w/the rest of the world's tech infrastructure." Li agrees, but adds another reason: China's increased adherence to international norms of intellectual property (including open source norms that involve open access to code). 

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Open source, of course, can't be stolen, but just because it's freely available doesn't mean it's free. To benefit fully from open source, developers and the organizations that employ them do well to actively contribute to open source communities. As noted in the stats early, Chinese developers have been increasingly active contributors. 

Li explains why: 

The growing open source community in China has long term benefits for our customers, as well as the technologies we're developing. When you have a community, you have more people to exchange ideas and more agility when it comes to problem solving. We want to provide value to the global community and our customers, and actively encourage our developers and engineers to contribute to the open source community.

While that community ethos has been shaken by presidential threats and tariffs, so far Chinese developers retain unimpeded access to key sources like GitHub and The Apache Software Foundation projects. That's good, because it turns out that we need Chinese developers giving and taking to and from open source, especially given their importance to charting open source's future in the cloud. 

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