As tension grows between China and the United States, there is worry in Beijing that the conflict could end up further restricting Chinese access to American technology.
Of foremost concern is that despite decades of effort, China has yet to build a homegrown operating system good enough to replace Microsoft Windows. “Our operating system market is dominated by U.S. companies such as Microsoft, Google and Apple," a recent report by state-run Xinhua News Agency said. “To fundamentally solve the problem of ‘being choked in [the] neck', creating a domestic operating system and supporting software and hardware ecosystem is a must."
To be fair, China is not alone. Other countries including Russia, Germany and South Korea have been trying to develop their own operating systems. But none of them have gotten very far yet.
Washington has already targeted China’s technology vulnerabilities. The U.S. Commerce Department has banned Huawei from Google Android and cut off the Chinese tech giant from foreign chip manufacturers in May 2019 after adding it to the Export Administration Regulations Entity List. Just last week, 33 Chinese firms and institutions, including the Shanghai-listed software giant Qihoo 360 Technology, were added to an economic blacklist for activities that threaten American national security or foreign policy interests.
Last month President Donald Trump suggested he is considering going further.
“There are many things we could do,” he told Maria Bartiromo, the Fox Business host. “We could cut off the whole relationship."
Economists now talk about “decoupling” the Chinese and U.S. economies, severing supply chains and business relationships that account for trillions of dollars in trade, because of the political tensions between Washington and Beijing.
“Some decoupling in the high-tech area seems inevitable and already in process,” said Doug Barry, the spokesman for communications and publications at the US-China Business Council.
Driven by the U.S. campaign to restrict China’s technology giants because of threats to U.S. national security, experts say the U.S.-China decoupling could widen to include desktop computers as well.
"To keep China from using Windows would be devastating to China," Dr. Feng Chongyi, associate professor in China Studies at Australia’s University of Technology Sydney, wrote in an email to VOA. "I am afraid this is a logical step when the Cold War II escalates to a higher level."
Like the rest of the world, China is heavily dependent on American technology companies that design microchips and the most popular computer operating systems.
According to a market report released last July by a Chinese research firm, Microsoft enjoys a dominant position in desktop and server operating systems, with nearly 90% of the market share in China.
"Domestic desktop and mobile operating systems are still in their infancy, accounting for less than 1% of the domestic market share," said the report by Dongxing Securities Co., Ltd.
To China, this represents a staggering national security problem.
The need for a homegrown operating system took on new urgency inside China in 2013 after Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor who leaked evidence showing secret U.S. surveillance programs, revealed he had avoided using commercial operating systems like Windows to hide his communications from the National Security Agency (NSA). Media reports then also quoted Snowden as saying the NSA had monitored the communications of top Chinese leaders. In China, his remarks led officials to suspect the NSA might be inserting backdoors into U.S.-made software.
The concern from China led Microsoft to open a facility in Beijing to allow officials to review the operating system source code to ensure there are no hidden backdoors. In 2017 Microsoft announced that the company would build a “Windows 10 China Government Edition” for Chinese government agencies to use. That led Microsoft to partner with a Chinese state-owned company to sell a custom-tailored “Windows 10 CMIT” to the Chinese government.
However, experts say on a practical level Chinese engineers have never been able to fully examine the Microsoft code and guarantee security because of the products’ complexity.
"The security risks and supply risks [of using Microsoft software] have never been resolved," an analyst named Yuanzhan wrote last month on Baijiahao, a platform for freelance writers, bloggers, and journalists powered by China's search giant, Baidu.
Today, it’s unclear how Beijing views the security of these products. In May 2015, the central government issued a notice requiring all essential government agencies to stop purchasing Microsoft Windows.
However, the latest government data shows at least 3,078 copies of Windows 10 were purchased by different central government agencies in May 2020, according to official reports VOA found on a government procurement website. These were copies of “Windows 10 CMIT.”
Dream of homegrown OS
Building its own operating system has been one of China’s largest and longest-running technical challenges. The effort can be traced back to the late 1970s when China first began to use the Unix operating system and tried to develop its own Unix-based operating system. Creating this operating system was formally approved as a critical mission in the country's top-level policy blueprint, the 1992 Five-Year Plan.
But almost three decades later, there’s been little success.
Over the years China has developed more than 20 operating systems with some of them being installed on computers used by the military and other sensitive government agencies. None of them has made much of a dent in the consumer market.
One of the biggest reasons, experts say, is the country does not have a so-called software ecosystem of developers creating programs to run on a new homegrown operating system.
"These systems have never been accepted by a large base of software developers," Qin Peng, a former Chinese IT consultant told VOA. “It is actually impossible for China to be in a position to have an ecosystem that is on par with the one in the U.S,” said Qin, who left China in 2014 and is now living in the U.S. where he is an independent commentator focusing mainly on IT issues.
Developers are selective on which projects they spend their time and money on, and most of the time their decisions are based on how big the user base is for a particular system.
“Chinese companies have not yet built up a library of premier applications, as many of them rely on Microsoft and Google for all kinds of functions,” Qin told VOA.
Liu Xinhuan, general manager of Tongxin Software Technology Co., Ltd., one of China’s major operating system makers, said in an interview with a Chinese media outlet that it could take up to 10 years before China can really compete with foreign operating systems, and the key to shorten the process "is to have a large ecosystem" of developers.
All of which means if the Chinese and U.S. economies do further decouple, Beijing could be stuck with few options for replacing the operating systems they have relied on for decades.