China Shakes Down Mom-and-Pop Internet Cafes

At first, it sounds like a good idea. Nanchang, the capital of China's eastern Jiangxi province, is requiring Internet cafe operators to replace pirated server software with legal copies of Red Flag Linux or Windows Server. What's not to like? It's estimated that China has an 82% software piracy rate. Getting businesses to go legal with a native Chinese Linux sounded like a win to me. Until, I saw the Red Flag Linux price tag: 5,000 yuan, that's $725 U.S. That's way over the line for a small Chinese business.

Nanchang has about 600 Internet cafes for its approximately 4-million citizens. In China, for most people, Internet cafes are still the way they use to connect with the Internet. China made be home for Lenovo and many other PC vendors, but you're not going to find PCs and broadband in most homes.

That said, no one's getting rich from the Internet cafes. They're small mom and pop businesses. They can't afford $725 for an operating system and they're letting the officials know about it. Unfortunately, it's not doing much good. One said, "When you talk to officials from the Culture Department, they tell you, 'If you're willing to pay, pay; if not, you have the option not to pay.' Hearing words like that turns your heart cold. We really can't make a living." In other words, you can either pay to play or you can go out of business.

Why not use another Linux? The local Culture Department, which is in charge of this new initiative, won't accept other Linux distributions. Nor, for that matter, it seems, will they believe Internet cafe owners who insist that they have legal copies of Windows.

This sounds to me like a straight-forward shakedown. I have no doubt that many of the cafes are using illegal software. That said, the government should be giving them the option of going with an affordable and legal Linux instead of insisting that they pay a premium price for a specific distribution.

Linux is a winning operating system because it's a great, affordable choice. Forcing it down people's throats at a high price is no way to win friends or make them want to do more with Linux.

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