News of a research fellow who was suspended from a prestigious Chinese university on Sunday became a top trending topic on social media after he admitted the “homegrown” programming language he created, Mulan, was a Python fork.

Why it matters: “Homegrown technology” achievements are often trumpeted by Chinese officials and state-owned media as the country pushes aggressively to build up technological self-reliance amid trade conflicts with the US.

  • However, vast national funding schemes to support homegrown alternatives to foreign technologies also give rise to cheating and counterfeiting.

Details: Liu Lei, a research fellow at the Institute at Computing Technology (ICT) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told state news agency China News Service Wednesday that he and his team had released a “fully autonomously designed” programming language.

  • The language, dubbed Mulan, or Module Unit Language, had been invented to fit “the next-generation artificial intelligence (AI) and internet of things (IoT) applications,” according to Liu.
  • He also claimed that Mulan was compatible with mainstream operating systems such as Android, iOS, Linux, and Windows.
  • Liu’s claims came under scrutiny late last week when users discovered that most of Mulan’s code was from Python, a 29-year-old open-source programming language created by Dutch programmer Guido van Rossum.
  • Liu apologized (in Chinese) for his exaggerations on Friday, admitting that a part of the compiler was redeveloped based on Python and that the language had actually been designed to teach coding to primary and secondary school-age children, rather than to be used for AI and IoT applications.
  • The ICT said in a statement (in Chinese) Sunday that Liu’s claims contained “false accounts” and that the institute had suspended him.
  • The incident became a trending topic on Chinese media over the weekend with the hashtag #MulanDeveloperApologizes gathering more than 68 million views on China’s microblogging platform, Weibo.

Context: Chinese companies and academics have been known to create forks for open source programs and claim that they are original.

  • In 2018, a Chinese startup claimed to have produced a “100% China developed” browser used by government bodies and state-owned enterprises. The browser was later found built on Google’s open-source Chromium project.
  • In 2003, the dean of the School of Microelectronics at prestigious Shanghai Jiaotong University claimed to have developed China’s first digital signal processing microchip, which later was found out to be a chip developed by Motorola with the trademark filed off.

Wei Sheng

Wei Sheng is a Beijing-based reporter covering hardware, smartphone, and telecommunications, along with regulations and policies related to the China tech scene. Before joining TechNode, he wrote about...

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