One of China’s top science research institutes has suspended an academic after finding that his “fully independently developed” programming language was based on a widely-used precursor, Python.
Liu Lei, a researcher at the Institute of Computing Technology (ICT) at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, announced last week that his research group had “independently” developed a new programming language, named Mulan after the legendary heroine, and touted as having “applications for artificial intelligence and the internet of things”.
Days later, Mr Liu wrote an apology to domestic media for “exaggerating” his achievements. Mr Liu admitted that Mulan was based on Python, a programming language whose components are freely available under an “open-source” licence, and that it was primarily designed for teaching programming to children, not for AI applications.
The case comes as China renews its push for domestically developed technologies in the face of US threats to cut off the country’s tech supply chain. Last year Beijing gave all government offices the ambitious target of stripping out foreign technology within three years.
On Sunday, the ICT announced Mr Liu’s suspension, while “deeply apologising for the harmful influence” the case had caused.
“Labelling projects as ‘independently developed’ is sometimes a requirement for applying for government funding,” said Wang Hanyang, founder of GAAS, an open-source drone software project.
“That doesn’t mean a project has to reinvent the wheel, but that it can still be used in the scenario that China is cut off from the outside world. China needs technologies for such an eventuality, even if those technologies are not as good as internationally-used ones,” Mr Wang added.
Over the past year, the US government has unleashed a series of export sanctions on Chinese tech companies, for instance cutting Huawei’s smartphone division off from Google’s mobile apps.
But US export sanctions have an exemption for open-source projects such as Python, which are designed to be available to all at no cost. The Chinese government said it wanted domestic engineers to engage more with open-source projects, partly to hedge against trade restrictions.
Many Chinese engineers worry that the US might also add open-source projects to its sanctions list, despite the lobbying of US-based tech groups such as Microsoft. Open-source is often held up by its proponents as exemplifying values of “borderless” exchange.
“Nobody has ever discriminated against a programming language based on what country it’s from . . . ask the programmers around you, do they care where the author’s from? I just care whether the open-source licence it’s under is reliable,” wrote He Dingyuan, an IT professional, on the discussion platform Zhihu.
Mark Ma, chief executive of Open Source China, a coding community, said that “organisations like ours are working to increase awareness of open-source intellectual property rights, while also making sure to strongly condemn plagiarism”.
In 2018, Chinese start-up Redcore issued a public apology, admitting that its web browser, which it had claimed was “China’s first independently-developed”, was largely based on Google’s open-source Chromium browser project.
Additional reporting by Nian Liu in Beijing