On the Beijing leg of his Asian tour last week, Bill Gates kowtowed to the inevitable and agreed to give China access to Microsoft's most treasured secrets. That is not to say the tour was unsuccessful. Mr Gates opened his two-day China trip with deals in the banking, telecoms and oil industry, and closed by granting China membership of the tiny Government Security Program (GSP). The GSP, which was announced in January, gives a select group of government information technology experts controlled access to the Windows source code. They do not have permission to modify or copy the code, but at least by seeing it they can learn how the software works and how they might secure it. Microsoft understands that it is one thing to talk about Trustworthy Computing, but unless potential customers can see the code for themselves the concept is nothing but marketing hype. To date, Microsoft has signed up Britain, Russia and Nato to the program, and claims to be holding talks with another 30 governments and organisations that would like to join - up from 20 a month ago. Although nothing has been announced yet, Microsoft is also in talks with the Hong Kong government. According to corporate communications head Bridget Yau, Mark Phibbs, managing director of Microsoft Hong Kong, has been discussing the GSP with the Hong Kong government's Information Technology Services Bureau. Assuming those talks go in Hong Kong's favour, the result is unlikely to be more than slightly more demanding software specifications on government tenders. China, however, is a different story. In a country where software piracy seems to underpin official technology policy, one has to wonder how far Microsoft is willing to go in order to impress the government. But the mainland has two things going for it that Hong Kong lacks. First, obviously, is its size. Having 1.3 billion Chinese all paying HK$2,330 for Windows XP Home edition and another HK$3,899 for the basic Office XP is a pipe dream, but Mr Gates would hardly be the first foreigner to puff on such prospects in China. But at least he knows it is a pipe dream. 'China has great potential to realise its potential as a global leader in software,' Mr Gates said last week. Observe the double 'potential'. If China only has the potential to have potential, that is very little potential. But it is enough. The other thing China has is competition - competition not only from the software pirates who have put Microsoft products on most of the country's computers but also from the legitimate software industry. No big organisation would want to use pirated software. Not only are corporations afraid of raids by the Business Software Alliance, they also know well that ripped-off software lacks the support, the updates, and the security of the originals. Not so for Linux. The open source nature of most free software means that everyone has full read-and-write access to every line of code, plus support from a huge community of developers. Being able to see and work with the source code is one of the key reasons for the platform's success. Unlike closed, proprietary software, the platform allows you to fix a problem if you see one. The obvious attractions of open source software are driving a global trend towards Linux in government. Most Asian governments are planning Linux initiatives. China, Australia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, India and the Philippines have all made commitments to the platform. These projects have ranged from developing Linux in local flavours to giving incentives to developers and deploying open source software in government departments. Here in Hong Kong, the government has shown little interest in open source development, and is invariably happy to tie its projects to proprietary software. Consequently, we seem to have become a very small blip on Mr Gates' radar. Meanwhile, look at Beijing. Already one beneficiary of Microsoft's US$780 million investment in the mainland's software industry, Beijing Municipal Government, has been given US$2.2 million to set up a PC Innovations Lab for software development. Coincidentally, Beijing Municipal Government is regularly mentioned by Linux advocates for its investment in locally developed open source software. As Microsoft has shown numerous governments, the best way to win concessions from the company is to mention Linux. China has not only won large investments as a result of its open standards push, it now has more privileged access than most fully developed nations. Besides, the country has an increasingly diverse software development community that is not totally dependent on a single platform. China was right to demand access to Microsoft's source code, and Microsoft was right to grant it. But letting a few bureaucrats take a peek should be only the beginning. More governments, especially those suffering unemployment and large budget deficits, should have the courage to invest in open source projects and insist on open standards. As China has shown this month, you cannot win concessions by always saying yes. Neil Taylor is the editor of Technology Post.