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Tech Thursday: Soft(ware) Power

Knockoff accusations against China’s “homegrown browser” are just the latest in a history of high-profile IP fraud in China

It was aggressively billed as China’s first exclusively “home-developed” web browser, designed to “[break] the American monopoly” but, in the end, turned out to be yet another example of the dangerous “over hyping” that many blame for China’s current trade war woes.

Last week, technology start-up Redcore said it had raised 250 million RMB in funds to further develop its independent Chinese browser, widely used by small and medium state-owned enterprises—the State Council of China, PetroChina, the National Bureau of Statistics—as well as large private companies such as electronic automaker BYD. Much of the money and hype being raised off the back of its intellectual property exclusivity.

Within a day, Weibo users had examined the code and found the latter was actually based on… Windows XP Chrome, version 49.1.2623.213.

And they would have gotten away with it, if it wasn’t for all the Chrome data in the source code…

A humiliating apology followed on the company’s official WeChat: “We have an inescapable responsibility for this. What we did is wrong, and we would like to apologize to you solemnly…We should have paid more attention to specific functions and customer value in the marketing, instead of placing special emphasis on its features of ‘home-made’ and ‘autonomy.’”

What the apology did not address was what the investors were getting for their money, if not the “100 percent” Chinese answer to Firefox or Internet Explorer, as was originally claimed. (Some alleged investors are now denying their stake)

This week, state media turned on the company like piranha consuming one of their own. China Daily branded the matter a “farce,” and harrumphed that “new technologies can only be developed through hard work, not copying” adding “never to lie to the public because any lie will be exposed soon.”

“If it’s okay to cut corners and mint quick fortunes by hyping such concepts, who else would be willing to toil on the sidelines and stick to original research?” asked Science and Technology Daily, a state-backed science magazine that last month waded into the ongoing Made in China 2025 controversy by lambasting the lack of “scientific spirit” which has led to the “bombastic” claims of world-class innovation and tech leadership, exemplified by the smash-hit documentary Amazing China (《厉害了, 我的国》 Lìhaile, WǒDe Guó); compulsory viewing for state employees only earlier this year, the doc has since quietly vanished from view.

There’s more to the story that just another high-profile case of IP fraud and dodgy financing schemes: apart from seeking to shake its dependence on being the world’s top low-cost factory floor and increase domestic consumption and manufacturing to diversify its slowing economy, China is seeking to reduce its dependence on foreign technology and boost its own soft power and credentials as a reliable and forward-thinking developer of saleable tech. At the same time, Beijing is seeking to reassure its trading partners that China will abide by global rules (such as the WTO) and not seek to disrupt, or even steal from, foreign countries’ own critical high-tech companies.

The Redcore scandal also coincides with another highly sensitive issue: Google’s potential return to China, in compliance with domestic cybersecurity and censorship, which has met with a raft of resistance from a coalition of free-speech advocates and trade war hawks in the West.

The prominence of Baidu, China’s leading search engine, is a product of a monopolistic hold on the franchise, critics argue, and not a particularly good product at that (it has also been mired in scandals, including accusations of corruption and result rigging). Meanwhile, state-backed efforts at creating a national Chinese search engine have so far produced only the widely mocked and little-used Panguso,the official search engine of Xinhua.

Though far from being equally as embarrassing, Redcore’s crude grift has been compared to the Hanxin (汉芯, “Chinese Core”) scandal, which broke 12 years ago. In 2003, computer scientist Chen Jin had been hailed as a heroic patriot for producing China’s first “digital signal processing computer chip” (DSP), a seemingly milestone event in the country’s relentless effort to close its technology gap with developed Western countries.

Three years later, the University of Texas graduate and former Motorola engineer’s efforts were exposed as a complete fraud: He and his team had simply “relabeled some chips designed by Freescale Semiconductor, a supplier to Motorola and Cisco, and passed them off” as Hanxin’s original work (so simple was the scam, Chen literally scraped off the Motorola logo and added Hanxin’s; moreover, the rebranded chips couldn’t even do what they claimed, such as play mp3 files, while their dual-core Hanxin 4 was simply “based on a single-processor core from another company”).

Branded “despicable,” Chen was pilloried and fired, as the whole country was claimed to have shared his humiliation. At the time, The New York Times wondered if Chen’s downfall might “represent an example of how even smart and successful people in China are being forced to cut corners to meet the nation’s hyper-ambitious goals?” Over a decade later, almost exact same question is being asked today—only this time by Chinese media.


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