There hasn’t been much time for settling in the past 8 years through which I called Shanghai my home base. Friends came and went, jobs changed, and so did apartments, but being a geek and taking part in local tech events hasn’t. Open Source has probably been the only constant along this near decade. Since I often get asked about OSS and China, I thought I would lay out my thoughts here (and, in the future, do the lazy thing of pointing people at this post).
As far as I can remember, Open Source wasn’t that popular either in the Western world a decade ago. From my days as a student, I remember the constant FUD against it. Employers didn’t give a damn about whether or not you were familiar with Linux or if you had contributed to an OSS project. If you had some experience with Java, that was good enough. SourceForge was the de facto platform to host such projects and Github wouldn’t be around for another few years.
Things in the US and Europe are now very different. The barriers of entry for English-speaking developers are much lower with an abundance of high quality, free and user-friendly resources and tools. The reputation incentives (more about this in The Cathedral and the Bazaar) are reinforced by the industry; it is not uncommon for companies to ask job applicants for their Github page or Open Source contributions. You can throw an event in 5 minutes on Meetup.com and expect a decent amount of people to show up, even for niche topics.
Not so much in China.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: China only started opening up to the rest of the world 3 decades ago, notably through the economic reform of 1978. It’s been busy at catching up with the rest of the world and in the last few years became the largest Internet population in the world. Fine.
Scale doesn’t equate to culture. There are a number of things that have been preventing OSS to really catch on:
Education is still very much lagging, with very institutional CS programs (think Java and .net… yummy!) and, until recently at least, a serious bias towards it. People would usually consider getting into CS only if other options were exhausted (business, sales, politics…). This is probably not so different from the 90’s in Europe. Unfortunately, educational systems don’t evolve (yet) as fast as technology and consumer behaviors.
The Chinese culture discourage individuality at least in some crucial areas. There are a lot of young people out there who just want to be like everybody else. This is a serious deterrent to innovation and experimentation, which are fundamentals of the hacker and OSS culture.
Language. Younger folks are more exposed to English, but we are still far from English being the lingua franca educated folks.
The demand from companies is quickly shifting, you just have to take a look at companies like Taobao, Dianping or Douban to know that (Baidu was left aside intentionally). It is hardly impacting things yet though. I actually believe that this tension is a good indicator of business opportunities.
Now this is not to say that there are no local initiatives. Especially in first tier cities (Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen…), you can find active local communities. They do however usually suffer from one of the following problems:
Fragmented and territorial. There are decently sized niche OSS communities that are pretty active. The Python community in Beijing and Shanghai, for example. However they are very silo-ed and territorial. This may work fine for the more crowded Western scene, but prevents the collaboration and knowledge transfer that would help other local communities get off the ground.
Too heavily targeted at foreigners, something that we are painfully familiar with in Shanghai. It often stems from the simple fact that these communities are initiated and led by foreigners. Anybody who’ve put a tech event here is aware of the difficulty of getting locals to get on stage and share their experiences. Again, individuality and public exposure are not necessarily encouraged.
Marketing shows, this is especially true for large local events. I’ve been more than once sitting in events in Shanghai and Beijing expecting some geek talks, only to be served pie charts and ads revenue projections by a suit.
Things have been quickly improving in the last few years. Taobao, highly regarded within local tech circles, is embracing Open Source and leading the way on how to do it right. I expect this to only accelerate and am prepared to be blown away in a few years from now when the Chinese hacker culture has solidified. You should too.