China has reportedly ordered all foreign PC hardware and operating systems to be replaced in the next three years, intensifying an ongoing tech war. The country has attempted this sort of thing before halfheartedly, but this is the most serious effort yet to isolate itself from the influence of the western technology sector.
The order came from high up in the Chinese government earlier this year, according to a Financial Times report citing Chinese tech analysts. The goal is not simply to replace American and European software and operating systems with Chinese equivalents, but the hardware they run on as well.
China has previously ordered purges of western software, but they were more limited or related to certain security issues; there were efforts five years ago to wean the country off Android and Windows, but ultimately they proved abortive.
This time could very easily be different. The relationship between the U.S. and China has become strained, to say the least, especially in the world of tech, where the two countries have shifted from earnest rivals to real adversaries. The U.S. has recently moved to ban some large Chinese hardware providers, such as ZTE and Huawei, from use in American infrastructure (Huawei has called the ban “unconstitutional”), and miscellaneous other policy decisions have widened the rift.
The apparently decisive nature of the order, then, should come as no surprise. The goal is reportedly to replace 30% of the computers and software by the end of 2020, an additional 50% in 2021 and the remaining 20% in 2022.
The three-year “3-5-2” plan is ambitious, to say the least. Tens of millions of devices will need to be replaced, but it isn’t as simple as trading out HP machines for Chinese-manufactured ones. The components and software must be Chinese as well, so Intel and AMD processors are out, as are Nvidia GPUs, ARM architectures, Sony image processors and so on.
This won’t be quite the shock it seems, however, as many Chinese companies have been preparing for this eventuality for years. China has made its desire to establish independence from U.S. companies especially quite clear and many state-backed enterprises have been unable to use U.S. suppliers for some time.
Even so, Chinese equivalents to products like Windows and Android have nowhere near the level of maturity and developer support necessary to swap them out with no consequences. And the ban may hamstring other major efforts like the country’s push to dominate the AI ecosystem. If Chinese government-backed researchers are unable to use the same tools as their academic and private counterparts elsewhere in the world, their results will almost certainly suffer.
The specifics of the plan are still confidential but will likely trickle out as they begin to be enforced. But this is likely to be a major driver of industry dynamics for several years as suppliers, developers and manufacturers all learn to navigate the divergent markets.