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Why do so many Chinese bitcoiners use Linux?

(@danielcawrey) | Published on October 9, 2013 at 10:20 BST

Unlike commercial operating systems such as Windows or Mac OS X, Linux stands alone because of its unique nature. One of the major benefits of using this OS is that it is open source, meaning that the underlying source code may be used, modified, and distributed as its users see fit.

There are very specialized flavors of Linux such as Bedrock, which can utilize the benefits of various other Linux distributions. Then there are companies like SuSE that provide enterprise-grade Linux for those, mainly corporations, looking for a high degree of stability in server functionality.

But why is it that a higher percentage of bitcoin enthusiasts in China than anywhere else seem to use Linux to download the bitcoin client (Bitcoin QT)?

Take a look at the statistics below and you’ll see that over a third of users downloading the bitcoin client in China chose the Linux version in August alone.

Compare that to the US or UK, which only had a 5% download rate.

Since August up until this week, Chinese users have downloaded the Linux client 17% of the time, tops for the five major countries overall that download it.

Download statistics for bitcoin client in August. Source: Sourceforge
Download statistics for bitcoin client in August. Source: SourceForge
Download statistics for the bitcoin client since August. Source: Sourceforge
Download statistics for the bitcoin client since August until this week. Source: SourceForge

It’s not because of regular, everyday use

At first glance, one might think that the reason why so many users in China are on Linux is because Windows is so expensive to use. Why pay for Windows when you could just use Linux? That does seem logical, but that’s not the real reason.

Anyone who is familiar with China’s lax laws regarding copyright protection knows that all you have to do is go down to the local pirated DVD seller and a Chinese language version of Windows is available for cheap.

A distribution of Linux doesn’t even rank as one of the total top 7 operating systems used in China. Source: StatCounter
A distribution of Linux doesn’t even rank as one of the total top 7 operating systems used in China. Source: StatCounter

This is further substantiated by operating system browser usage in China. It’s clear that the majority of Chinese internet users are not using Linux when you take into account StatCounter data, generally respected as a good source for statistics on browser versions and thus as a subsidiary operating system usage.

What the Chinese are using the Linux bitcoin client for

It becomes pretty obvious after looking at a few factors that the only reason the Chinese are overwhelmingly using the bitcoin client on Linux for mining coins is to solve cryptographic problems in order to unlock additional units of BTC. And that makes sense because resources can be better pooled using Linux than with other operating systems.

This may be one of the biggest indicators that it is the Chinese who may be the biggest miners of bitcoin overall, and that shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has been following the ASIC mining race.

BTC hash rate, which is a measurement of the amount of processing power the network is performing at, started skyrocketing in August. Source: Blockchain.info
BTC hash rate, which is a measurement of the amount of processing power the network is performing at, started skyrocketing in August. That was the same month Chinese bitcoin Linux client downloads went up.  Source: Blockchain.info

Hunter Sherman, a software developer working on content distribution and data gathering solutions, believes that the Chinese are simply harnessing the computing power of older hardware.

“Bitcoin mining is about raw CPU, so a bunch of two year old machines running a low overhead OS like Linux have more power and is an overall cheaper solution then a new PC. They can also throw the money spent on Windows or OSX at more hardware,” says Sherman.

The incentive to mine

Ankur Nandwani, a bitcoin enthusiast running the open BitMonet microtransaction project, believes that Linux’s open nature is a component to the rise in mining in China.

This was widely reported in a recent article called “Bitcoin Mania Grips China” for Bloomberg Businessweek.

“Being open-source, miners can easily optimize Linux for bitcoin mining”, says Nandwani. “Also people have written drivers that enable Linux to run on different ASIC’s, so that might be another reason motivating miners to use Linux.”

Despite having the second largest economy in the world, the Chinese Yuan is not even in the top 15 currencies traded on the foreign exchange market. The total at the bottom amounts to 200% because each trade requires a currency pair. Source: Wikipedia
Despite having the second largest economy in the world, the Chinese yuan is not even in the top 15 currencies traded on the foreign exchange market. The total at the bottom amounts to 200% because each trade requires a currency pair. Source: Wikipedia

Linux and its relative technological freedom could also be considered a counterbalance to what China has done for some time to control its currency, the yuan.

“Currency controls seem to be the driving force behind the growth of bitcoins in China,” says Nandwani. “Also, considering that bitcoin might become really popular in the future, the Chinese government might be further incentivized to promote mining in China.”

Conclusion

A scene depicting bitcoin mining in China Central Televisions's documentary about bitcoin. The Chinese media is controlled and influenced by the country's government, which may indicate its collective sense of BTC. Source: YouTube
A scene depicting bitcoin mining on China’s Central Television documentary about bitcoin. The Chinese media is controlled and influenced by the country’s government, which may indicate its collective sense of BTC. Source: YouTube

It would seem that, given the Chinese government’s history of controlling the value of its currency, it would not readily embrace the idea of bitcoin. It’s not something  they can control, though, and that is perhaps why instead of enacting rules regarding it they have tacitly accepted it.

One way they expressed this was by showing a documentary about bitcoin on national television. Yet China’s central bank has issued warnings on virtual currencies in the past.

Tencent QQ, the popular instant messaging service with over 798 million active users, has its own virtual currency called Q Coin. QQ users trade in Chinese yuan for Q Coin to purchase mostly virtual goods. But it has also been traded amongst QQ members and used to buy real-world products and services.

This has led the government to issue a warning regarding the use of Q Coin to launder money through it by taking illegitimately earned money and trading it through the virtual currency.

Bitcoin has this same propensity, and China would have a harder time controlling that than to simply tell Tencent, the operator of QQ, to simply shut down Q Coin.

What do you think about bitcoin in China? Do you think that the government there will accept bitcoin long-term? Do they have a choice? Let us know in the comments.

Featured Image Source: Flickr

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