Chinese Free Software communities?

I am not Chinese (ethnicity or nationality) but I am learning Chinese (language) and am interested in modern Chinese society. I’ve always been a bit surprised that despite the fact that most of the world’s hardware comes from the Sinosphere, there doesn’t seem to be much of a connection between the Free Software movement in the West and like-minded folks in China (e.g. there’s a FSF Europe but there’s no FSF Asia).

Personally, I think that the socialist heritage of modern China, together with the central role that modern China plays in hardware manufacturing, means that China is uniquely positioned to play a major role in promoting liberty-increasing computing, especially if non-Chinese advocates of Free Software could connect better with their Chinese counterparts. The best example of what I’m imagining is Pine64, which is the result of a Chinese American founder who knew how to work the bamboo network and combined those skills with a Free Software sensibility. Now, if I recall correctly, Pine64 itself has fallen off a bit with its ideological commitments, and its products were always… temperamental. But there’s no reason why we couldn’t have dozens of Pine64s if the western Free Software movement were better connected to the hacker culture of the Pearl River Delta.

Part of this is just that the Chinese internet is so different from the Western internet. Different in language; different in services; different in online cultural conventions. But none of these obstacles are insuperable, and I think more non-Chinese ought to try. So here’s my attempt.

If you are familiar with the Chinese internet, what are some online communities centered around similar Free Software values that you know of? Or, if not online communities, what are some physical spaces or organizations that promote like-minded causes?


If you are familiar with the Chinese internet, what are some online communities centered around similar Free Software values that you know of?

Wouldn’t it be more useful to ask this question in a mandarin-speaking forum? I’m also interested to know about this, but don’t know where to start.

A minor nitpick: you use the terms “Asia”, “China”, “the Sinosphere”, “the bamboo network” and “the Pearl River Delta” as if they were interchangeable, which is a bit off-putting. I guess you do that for rhetorical reasons, to avoid repetition, but it may come off as imperialistic.

I figured the odds of finding someone who happened to be tuned in to the world of Chinese tech, given a community of Free Software enthusiasts, were a bit better than the odds of finding someone who happened to get Free Software, given a community of Chinese speakers. But you’re right, I could also be working other leads.

I disagree that I’m treating various geographical / cultural terms as interchangeable though. Quite the opposite, I used different terms because each one has a different focus and fit its sentence best.

From what I’ve heard in a couple of random documentaries (so take this with a shaker of salt), copyright is not as strong in China as it is in “the west”. Free software was not created because of an inherent need for it, but as a reaction to problems created by copyright law. So one plausible hypothesis might be that China simply doesn’t need a free software movement.

That’s an aspect to it – Bunnie Huang has a great analysis here of how the on-the-ground-reality of intellectual property law around hardware in China leads to a different expression of the hacker ethos. Naomi Wu has also made at least one video about enforcing the GPL in China (it’s hard).

But that’s not the whole story. I know, vaguely, that there are more explicit Free Software ideological groups in China. Just not how to contact them. And what’s more – notice that the bunnie article I linked above is from ten years ago. As China climbs up the production value chain, the international IP system changes from an obstacle to an asset as Chinese firms develop more IP that’s internationally competitive. Consequently, the international IP system has increasing force in China, and the principles of Free Software become increasingly relevant.

1 Like

Interesting. I can’t comment much on how it describes the Chinese IP system, but the way it describes the US IP system aligns with the way I have heard it described by its proponents in my life. And honestly, in this simplified form it sounds nice. We share the knowledge broadly, but make sure that credit (both intellectual and monetary) goes back to the people who originally assembled the knowledge. This protects the knowledge workers from people who would take their work and claim it as their own while maximizing the usefulness of the knowledge they produce.

Unfortunately, that’s not really how it works in practice. One problem is that IP rarely goes to individuals any more, it mostly goes to companies. So instead of credit going to the knowledge worker, credit goes to the people who have property rights over the company (shares in a public company or ownership of a private one). The IP enhances the brand and revenue goes to the company first, with some part of it possibly being shared with the knowledge workers.

All of the people working at the company are supporting the work. Planning and resource management are legitimate forms of labor. Maintaining a clean, organized, and sanitary environment helps the knowledge workers stay focused on the thing they’re best at. Everybody working at the company deserves credit for their part in the effort. But that is different than the credit going to the company itself, which effectively means it goes to people who have obtained property rights to the company and might not have done anything to actually support the work. So in spite of this system, we still have people taking their work and claiming it as their own.

And then there’s the fact that nobody is required to license their work. Property holders can communicate it to the whole world, then say “but nobody is allowed to use this and I’m not going to use it either”. The whole point of communicating it is so that it can be used. I’d prefer that the knowledge worker (or whoever obtained property rights to the knowledge worker’s output) is required to allow their work to be used for any purpose, but if it is used in a commercial activity then some percentage of the profit goes back to the knowledge worker automatically for a set period of item (say, 5-10 years for software, a sensible number will vary by domain).