Last May, I wrote a three-part series that surveyed the entire open source landscape in China:
Since then, the landscape has changed significantly as “open source” continues to receive top-down attention from the central government. Recently, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT, China’s main regulator of its tech industry) released a new set of development planning guidance. “Open source” is prominently featured; the term was used 27 times.
This guidance specifically called out the establishment of China’s first home-grown open-source foundation -- the OpenAtom Foundation -- as a major accomplishment (for more on the OpenAtom Foundation, see my previous analysis). Looking ahead, the guidance explicitly sets a target of building 2-3 open source communities with “global influence” by 2025.
The MIIT guidance is focused on advancing and modernizing China’s industrial technology infrastructure and supply chain. The infrastructure layer is where open source software tends to excel starting with Linux, the open source operating system that runs most of the world’s servers. China’s open source community has been organically growing since the early 2000s. The country now sports the world’s second largest developer community, with a burgeoning if not crowded open source ecosystem. Many projects have 5-figure GitHub stars, thousands of forks, and hundreds of contributors, but those are mostly vanity metrics. Only projects with strategic technical value have the potential to reach a global developer audience.
With the MIIT expressing both top-level approval and high expectation of open source, which “Made in China” open source projects have the best chance of emerging as both a “local champion” and a “global influencer” by 2025? I share my prediction of six leading candidates -- three Big Tech projects, three independent projects -- and why they could become global projects.
Big Tech Projects
The three Big Tech projects are Baidu’s Apollo (self-driving), Huawei’s OpenHarmony (operating system), and Alibaba’s OpenXuantie (RISC-V based semiconductor design).
Apollo: First launched in 2017, Apollo has emerged as one of the leading self-driving open source projects. It’s at the heart of Baidu’s Apollo Go robotaxi service, which “beta launched” in a neighborhood in Beijing. That neighborhood just happens to be one of the venues of the upcoming Winter Olympics. Even though this Winter Olympics is receiving lots of geopolitical pushback from Western countries -- the US, Canada, Australia, and the UK have all announced diplomatic boycotts of the competition -- it will still be a major product launch moment for China’s self-driving ambition in front of a global audience.
How well Apollo works during the Olympics will indicate whether Baidu’s goal of launching the Apollo Go robotaxi service in 65 cities by 2025 is realistic or not. But Baidu’s goal aside, it is likely that Apollo as an open source project with a permissive license (Apache 2.0) has already been copied, reused, and modified to run other self-driving vehicles made by other manufacturers. By 2025, Apollo may well emerge as the leading open source self-driving alternative to Tesla’s self-driving software stack, which is at the moment totally closed source and proprietary. At first glance, Apollo’s documentation and ReadMe on GitHub are all in English and look well-structured and well-written. This is a positive signal that the project team is investing in making Apollo accessible to non-Chinese developers.
If Tesla’s system is the iOS of self-driving, Baidu’s Apollo may become self-driving’s Android.
Huawei’s OpenHarmony: first started in 2012, Huawei’s development of OpenHarmony intensified in 2019 to reduce its reliance on the Android operating system due to US sanctions. The OpenHarmony project also became the “anchor project” of the OpenAtom Foundation, which Huawei is heavily involved in.
While OpenHarmony’s development was mostly a reaction to possible future US sanctions, there is a proactive, strategic element to OpenHarmony potentially becoming an alternative OS to both iOS and Android. For countries like Russia that are also concerned about US sanctions, OpenHarmony could be an appealing option.
Even though the MIIT guidance explicitly mentioned OpenHarmony (and no other project), the project is still relatively young and hosted on Gitee, China’s domestic alternative to GitHub with limited appeal to non-Chinese developers. From a strategic technical perspective, OpenHarmony has global influence potential, but the team has a long way to go to appeal to the global developer community.
Alibaba’s OpenXuantie: this project is the youngest of the three Big Tech projects, so it’s my “dark horse” pick. It was just open sourced in October, so Xuantie has hardly any community presence or traction, whether in Chinese or English.
Why do I think OpenXuantie has the promise to reach the kind of “global influence” that MIIT is targeting by 2025?
First, it is incubated within Alibaba, which has the strongest open source technical and community talent among all of China’s tech giants. Second, it leverages RISC-V, the open source semiconductor design architecture. (For more on RISC-V, please see my previous writings.) As far as I know, Alibaba still sports the fastest RISC-V based processor. Now it is taking a profound step forward to open source its semiconductor design development via OpenXuantie.
Given semiconductor’s obvious strategic importance to China, as well as countries like India, Pakistan, Japan, Korea, and many European countries, open source projects that can take RISC-V to the next level will surely gain global influence. Of course, the future of the semiconductor industry is anything but certain, with the US Federal Trade Commission challenging Nvidia’s acquisition of Arm on antitrust grounds. But RISC-V will be a force no matter what happens to the Nvidia-Arm deal, and OpenXuantie may play a big role in RISC-V’s continuous rise.
The three independent projects are TiDB / TiKV (distributed database), OpenResty (API gateway), and OceanBase (distributed database).
TiDB / TiKV: started in 2015, TiDB is one of the most active open source distributed databases that is not incubated by any tech giant. TiKV is the key-value storage layer of the database, which was donated to the Cloud Native Computing Foundation in 2018 as a separate project. Thus, this layer technically belongs to the Foundation, not PingCAP, the startup that originally created both TiDB and TiKV in tandem.
Disclaimer: I worked for two years at PingCAP to launch its global expansion operation. I don’t have any knowledge of the company’s latest planning or roadmap. This analysis is purely based on my outside observation of these open source projects.
Because databases are a crucial layer of any infrastructure stack, TiDB / TiKV very much fits the MIIT’s strategic focus on China’s industrial technology infrastructure and supply chain. And because of the projects’ popularity among database engineers, many of whom are open source enthusiasts, the core technology has advanced quickly. In fact, TiDB / TiKV have been considered as a good enough home-grown alternative to the likes of Oracle and IBM since 2018. With users like Square and Shopee, you can argue that TiDB / TiKV already has some global influence.
OpenResty: started in 2011, OpenResty is one of the oldest and most widely used open source projects that originated from China. This project is likely how many Western developers first came in contact with “Made in China” open source technology.
Similar to the database layer, the API gateway layer is also crucial to all flavors of infrastructure technology, especially ones that are cloud-native. In simple terms, an API gateway provides load balancing and routing of API calls and web traffic dynamically, so your system does not crash when too many requests come in, say on an online shopping holiday like Singles Day. It’s no surprise then that OpenResty was first created inside Yahoo China, then followed its creator to Taobao, then to Cloudflare. The project is now stewarded by its own foundation and commercialized by a startup, also called OpenResty.
Given its long history and wide adoption, including users like Target and Lyft, OpenResty also already has “global influence”. It will be interesting to see how big the project becomes by 2025.
OceanBase: it may be a bit of a stretch to call OceanBase an independent open source project, because it was neither independent nor open source until very recently. First incubated inside Ant Financial as the primary transactional database for AliPay, Taobao, then many other products in the vast Alibaba ecosystem, OceanBase was spun out in mid-2020 as an independent company. However, the company is still mostly owned by Ant. OceanBase’s open source history is even shorter than its independent corporate history; its core codebase was open sourced in mid-2021, only a few months before my writing this post.
However, OceanBase deserves a mention because it is literally the fastest database in the world, at least by the measurement of a well-known industry benchmark called TPC-C. I won’t go into the technical details of what this benchmark measures. What’s important to note is that not only was OceanBase first place based on the TPC-C benchmark measurement, it was twice as fast as the second place Oracle product.
Given its short open source history, it remains to be seen how much “global influence” OceanBase can accrue over the next four years. Its core technology is unquestionably top-notch. But technology alone is by no means sufficient for any open source project to reach global prominence.
Every one of these six projects is worthy of its own deep dive analysis; this overview post barely scratches the surface of their respective technology and strategic value. While we won’t know for four more years which open source projects will receive the MIIT’s “global influence” badge of honor, open source itself is clearly a force that the Chinese government has both recognized and (mostly) embraced. Thus, understanding how open source works is table stakes for anyone working in technology, foreign policy, and especially the intersection of both.
一年多过去后，随着 "开源" 继续得到中央政府自上而下的关注，整个生态也在变化。最近，工信部发布了一套新的发展规划。在规划文件里，“开源”极为突出，此词共被提到了27次。
该规划特别指出中国第一个本土的开源基金会 —— 开放原子开源基金会 —— 的建立是一项重大成就（关于开放原子开源基金会，请读我对它之前写的分析）。展望未来，该规划明确设定了2025年要建立2-3个具有 "国际影响力" 的开源社区的目标。
随着工信部对开源表达了最高级别的认可和高度的期望，哪些 "中国制造" 的开源项目最有可能在2025年既成为 "本土佼佼者 "，又达到 "国际影响力"呢？在本文中我分享一下个人选的六个候选项目 —— 三个大厂孵化的，三个独立项目 —— 以及为什么它们可能成为有国际影响力的项目。
Apollo在冬奥会期间的表现如何，将证明百度准备在2025年前在65个城市推出Apollo Go无人出租车服务的目标是否会现实。但撇开百度的目标不谈，Apollo作为一项用了开放许可（Apache 2.0）的开源项目，很可能已经被复制、修改和使用到其他厂商的无人车里了。到2025年时，Apollo很可能成为特斯拉自驾软件栈的替代方案。特斯拉的自驾游软件栈目前是完全专有和闭源的。乍一看，Apollo的文档和GitHub上的ReadMe都是英文的，看起来结构清晰，写得很好。这是一个好信号，表明项目团队正在努力让Apollo面向海外的开发者。
这三个独立项目是TiDB / TiKV（分布式数据库）、OpenResty（API网关）和OceanBase（分布式数据库）。
因为数据库是任何基础设施堆栈的关键层，TiDB/TiKV非常符合工信部对中国产业基础高级化、产业链现代化的政策目标。由于这些项目在数据库工程师中很受欢迎，其中许多人都是开源爱好者，因此核心技术进展很快。自2018年以来，就有报道提出TiDB / TiKV已经被认为是足以替代甲骨文和IBM等公司的本土产品。目前TiDB / TiKV已有Square和Shopee这样的用户，可以说已经具有一定的国际影响力了。
OpenResty: 始于2011年，该项目是源于中国最老和最被广泛使用的开源项目之一。这个项目可能是许多西方开发者第一次接触到 "中国制造" 的开源技术。
鉴于其多年历史和广泛应用，包括Target和Lyft这种用户，OpenResty也已经在某种程度上具有 "国际影响力" 了。我们可以看看到2025年时这个项目变得有多大，这样的观察会很有意思。
鉴于其短暂的开源历史，OceanBase在未来四年内能积累多少 "国际影响力" 还有待观察。它的核心技术无疑是一流的，但是单靠技术去影响全球的开发者，对任何开源项目都是远远不够的。
这六个项目中的每一个都值得深入分析，这篇综述文章仅仅触及了它们各自技术和战略价值的皮毛。虽然还要等四年才能知道哪些开源项目将获得工信部的 "国际影响力" 勋章，但开源显然是一股中国政府已经认识到并（大部分）认可的力量。因此，对于任何从事科技工作、外交政策工作，尤其是两者交叉点的工作的人士来说，了解开源项目如何运作和成长是必须的。