Aug 30, 2018 01:00 PM

Opinion: Homegrown Browser Scandal Holds Lesson for China’s Innovators: Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

Earlier this month, a Beijing-based web browser startup named Redcore — which claimed to be 100%-China-developed and which targeted government customers — raised $36 million in funding. But internet users found out that ironically, not only was this startup that asserted to have “broken the American monopoly” not fully powered by Chinese technologies, it was, in fact, built on Google Chrome’s technologies.

Redcore reminded me of Red Star OS, the North Korean “independently developed” operating system that runs on the Linux kernel while resembling the interface of Apple Inc.’s MacOS. But of course, China is no North Korea. In terms of tech innovations, the country is no longer the “shanzhai” (copycat) warehouse it used to be; Chinese companies have developed technologies that make good rivals against their U.S. counterparts in the international market. In a Chinese entrepreneur’s own words, “the world is now copying from China.”

The hype for homegrown innovations in China is, nevertheless, not unfounded. As the U.S. government recently imposed near-fatal sanctions on ZTE Corp. — the Shenzhen-based manufacturer that is one of the symbols of China’s technological advancement — it became evident that even some of China’s best manufacturers still heavily rely on foreign technologies in certain key areas such as semiconductors. “China’s technology boom, it turns out, has been largely built on top of Western technology,” New York Times columnist Li Yuan wrote in a commentary.

There is nothing wrong about developing homegrown technologies per se. But behind this “developed in China” hype, there is simply no value beneath a fully China-developed product that is nothing more than a reinvented wheel — perhaps a wooden one, even. “Independent innovation has become a high-frequency phrase spreading across academia and industry circles to the whole society, as if it can come true based solely on belief itself,” according to an editorial in the state-owned Science and Technology Daily newspaper.

Redcore is not the first company that highlighted “developed in China” as a major product selling point. In 2010, the Chinese government supported NeoKylin, a Shanghai-made alternative that looked exactly like Microsoft Windows XP — but with a worse user experience. A closed-source mobile OS called the China Operating System, also known as the COS, was launched in 2014; as the product was accused of resembling the Android operating system, internet users jokingly said the acronym should stand for “Copy Other Systems.” Unsurprisingly, neither attempt received much success on the consumer end aside from colossal funding.

Science and Technology Daily Editor-in-Chief Liu Yadong has been known as a vocal critic of the media’s hyping up China’s technological advancement. He attributed the nation’s lack of original innovation to the absence of scientific spirit. “In my opinion, China in 1919 lacked scientific spirit, and China in 2019 will still lack scientific spirit,” Liu said at a forum, referencing the New Culture Movement during which Western science was introduced to Republican China.

Modern science is, as Francis Fukuyama characterized, “cumulative and directional.” In other words, new innovations should build upon fruits of earlier research. Rome wasn’t built in a day — but there is a bias coming out of China’s innovation hype that groundbreaking technology has to be designed and built from scratch. The emergence of open-source technologies is arguably one of the most significant factors in the exponential growth of the internet sector; Chinese innovators, instead of avoiding foreign-made open-source software, should embrace them and become more engaged in these developer communities.

“Chromium and Firefox are community-driven open-source projects. Their licenses encourage innovations based on existing technologies instead of reinventing the wheel,” Qihoo 360, the company which developed one of China’s most popular web browsers, wrote in an article commenting the Redcore farce. “Chromium itself is based upon numerous open-source projects. Without them, there would be no Chromium. A closed-source, independently developed web browser that uses private standards is more dangerous than an open-source one that abides by public standards.”

The role that China plays in the global environment necessitates its independent technological development, but the blanket term of “developed in China” should not misguide innovators and investors to valueless reinvented wheels. While China has substantial capital to fund innovative projects, both from the government side and the private sector, what we have learned from this Series C startup that raised $36 million — with no genuine innovation but merely a fork of Google Chrome — should ring a bell.

Tianyu M. Fang is a Boston-based freelance writer focused on politics, cyberspace, and internet culture in the U.S. and Asia.

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