I'm in Beijing right now, attending the 2006 Open Source China Open Source World conference held by the China Open Source Promotion Union.
Despite the bombastic title, this is actually an event that brings together a number of interesting players. Political and technical leaders in the open source community in China. And a number of open source people from Europe and the US (including Jim Zemlin from the Free Standards Group, Brian Behlendorf from CollabNet, David Axmark, one of the founders of MySQL and of course myself).
The goal of COPU and of this event is to help the Chinese Linux ecosystem to convert from an open source consumer to a community member. And that is harder than one might think. The language and cultural barriers are huge. And the understanding of the advantage of a global community for open source projects is not very widely shared.
Especially on the political side we see a number of people who only see open source as a way in which China can create a national software industry that is independent from the rest of the world. These people of course miss the point of open source - the fact that strength is in numbers. And that while forking is certainly one of the fundamental rights in open source, it always needs to be an ultima ratio, a last resort if a project truly is going the wrong way.
Creating local "copies" of existing projects just to avoid the cultural barriers is a certain way to miss out on the biggest opportunity that open source offers to you. The combined innovation and quality control that a large diverse project will give you. It may seem simple when forking to just "bring over" the important changes in the main project into your local project. But as time goes on you either lose contact to the main branch of the project (and therefore miss out on the innovation), or you spend the majority of your time on back-porting the changes made elsewhere (and therefore miss out on the ability to adapt and enhance the project for your local market).
If instead the local communities join the global open source projects (like the Linux kernel, X.Org, OpenOffice or Apache) they can bring their wisdom and insights, their bug reports, feature requests and of course their code contributions into the mainstream and at the same time advance the project and benefit from the progress that is made by developer teams elsewhere.
Unfortunately English is the lingua franca of the open source world. But frankly, written English that is at least marginally comprehensible is not hard to learn - and the tolerance for non-perfect English used to present good feedback (or good code) is very high. And while the tone on many mailing lists might seem harsh, once you participate for a while you will find out that the majority of the developers is genuinely happy and excited to welcome new contributors.
Yes, there's a learning curve and there may be frustrations involved. But the advantage of participating in the global open source community are so big that this seems to be a small price to pay.
It all sounds painfully obvious. But listening closely here, it seems that it's not a choice that is popular here in China. There will be a lot of work ahead for COPU to be successful.