If China’s warnings about Windows 8 are true, the country desperately needs it

In China, the data are not always clear.
In China, the data are not always clear.
Image: Reuters/Edgar Su
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Microsoft just can’t win in China. In the midst of a cyberspying row between Washington and Beijing, Chinese officials have already forbid government offices from using Windows 8, and now the government is warning private citizens the operating system could illicitly access their personal information.

In a broadcast June 4 (link to English version) state-run China Central Television warned that Windows 8 is a threat to the nation’s security. It can access ”your identity, account, contact book, phone numbers,” said Lenovo co-founder Ni Guangnan. “The statistics collected will be more precise and up-to-date than that collected by our National Bureau of Statistics.”

That’s a pretty low bar.

Many of China’s national statistics have long been suspect, and much of the data on the country’s economy is inaccurate. China’s official statistics miscounted housing prices and other consumer inflation so badly that the economy is $1 trillion smaller than it appears, a Peking University professor said last year. Positive export data that came out earlier this year was wildly inflated due to fraudulent invoicing, which allows companies to smuggle capital out of the country. And local government growth statistics are so inflated, presumably to please Beijing, that the head of the country’s statistics bureau dubbed it “the biggest form of corruption” earlier this year and vowed to punish offenders.

Whether Microsoft’s operating system could actually help collect more accurate data—and, as CCTV alleges, funnel it to the US government—is a matter of debate. The company has said there are “no back doors” in Windows 8, and that the operating system is its most secure. That’s certainly not the case with the Windows XP, an out-of-date OS that is still widely used in China, and which is riddled with security vulnerabilities that hackers can exploit.

Microsoft does not break out sales or investments by country, so it is impossible to say what impact China’s frosty reception to Windows 8 might have on overall performance. In 2011, CEO Steve Ballmer said Microsoft revenues from China were just 5% of what they were in the United States, despite similar personal computer sales, because of rampant piracy.

But the growth of internet and computer users in the country makes it one of the most attractive markets in the world. China’s nearly 600 million internet users, most of which are accessing the internet through their smart phones, are certainly attracting the attention of tech companies, including Microsoft—and the Seattle behemoth is getting shut out there as well.

Earlier this week, Tencent, the owners of China’s popular messaging service WeChat, blocked Microsoft’s new “Xiaobing” chat robots, which answered WeChat users questions, calling them “potentially threats to users’ privacy” that could leak their chat history.

Richard Macauley contributed reporting.