Tea Leaf Nation



In Chinese, the word for irony is fengci, and it often refers to incidents that are embarrassing and easily mockable. In August, for example, officials at a zoo in central China tried to pass off a large dog as a lion. More recently, the agency tasked with coordinating the protection of intellectual property rights in China appears to be using pirated software. In early October, Weisi Dai, a graduate student in privacy engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, stumbled upon a pdf slideshow file on the website of China’s State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO). The file’s contents were unsurprising, but the property tab listed the author as "Tomato Garden," a website notorious for providing pirated software.

On Oct. 6, Dai posted a screenshot of his findings on Twitter; other users then reposted the information on Sina Weibo, China’s own Twitter-like social media platform. As of Oct. 14, the pdf was still available for download on SIPO’s website, with "Tomato Garden" still listed as the author.*

Formerly one the biggest pirates of Microsoft software in China, Tomato Garden was a Robin Hood of the Chinese Internet, providing software that retailed for approximately $150 in China for less than a dollar. After authorities began investigating the company in 2008, Sina, one of China’s largest Internet portal sites, surveyed over 150,000 Chinese and found that 80 percent supported Tomato Garden.

Chinese officials were less inclined to be lenient, however. In August 2009, courts sentenced Tomato Garden founder Hong Lei to three-and-a-half years in jail, in what the state-run English-language newspaper China Daily called "the biggest crackdown on software piracy in recent years." In April 2010, SIPO lauded the Tomato Garden takedown as a "very influential case" and a "warning to pirates." Released from prison in September 2011, Hong stated he planned to abandon the "path of piracy" in favor of legitimate pursuits. But Hong’s hacked software is still widely available on the Internet.

It is possible that SIPO obtained the software through legal channels, and the author’s name was somehow changed to "Tomato Garden." But clearly, that’s unlikely. The Beijing Youth Daily, one of Beijing’s most widely read local papers, noted the irony in the incident, while the popular news portal Netease ran an article claiming "SIPO is slapping itself in the face" by using pirated software. On Oct. 10, SIPO told Xinhua, China’s largest news agency, that it had launched an investigation, but emphasized that all employees used authorized software. (SIPO did not return a request for comment.)

Illegally downloading software is widely accepted in China, and many Internet users greeted the news with a shrug. "Just throwing this out there: how many Chinese today actually use legit software?" wrote Weibo user Wang Xiaoben. Another commenter’s reaction to the news was even more blasé: "The world keeps turning," he wrote.

*Correction: The original article stated that SIPO was accused of using pirated Adobe software. In fact, SIPO was accused of using pirated Microsft software. Foreign Policy regrets the error.