According to a report in Chinese magazine Caixin, Microsoft completed a special edition of Windows 10 for the Chinese government, called Windows 10 Zhuangongban, which includes additional "management and security controls." The company struck a deal last December to create a joint venture with China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC) to sell this special edition in the country.
The Chinese government has stricter rules for companies that want to do business in China, and in the past few months it has been pushing American companies to create joint ventures with local companies. This would give the local companies, as well as the Chinese government more control over American technology products.
For instance, it's no secret that China would want an easy way to unlock encrypted devices and communications, which it has tried to push through new counter-terrorism laws last year. However, after major pushback from the American companies and the U.S. government, China may have agreed to a compromise, which would allow American companies to save face by not forcing them to implement their own backdoors into their products. The Chinese government would instead ask them to allow Chinese companies to modify the U.S. companies' products in accordance with the local laws.
It wouldn't be the first time something like this has happened, either. Years ago, the old Skype company agreed to create a joint-venture with a local Chinese company, called TOM-Skype. This happened at a time when Skype was still using the hard-to-intercept peer-to-peer version of the app, so special software would need to be used to intercept or censor those messages.
However, once Microsoft killed the P2P architecture of Skype and all the messages would go through its own servers, such method of interception was no longer required. The Chinese government could request the messages in the same way the U.S. government could. This will remain true until Microsoft adopts end-to-end encryption for Skype, similar to what Signal or Whatsapp are using.
It's not clear whether the special Chinese version of Windows 10 was created for the purpose of allowing government surveillance and censorship because Microsoft doesn't seem to want to divulge too many details about the partnership. However, once Microsoft allows local Chinese companies to write native code for that special version of Windows 10, then what happens to that code may even be out of Microsoft's hands.
The partnership also comes a few years after the Snowden revelations, which prompted the Chinese government to ban Windows 8 from government offices for security reasons. Other American companies, including IBM, Qualcomm, Intel, Dell, Cisco, HP, Cloudflare, and Juniper Networks have seen similar treatment by the Chinese government, as well as some anti-trust investigations. According to Dell's president of enterprise solutions, these sort of joint-ventures may be the only way forward for American companies that want to do business in China.
Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware. You can follow him at @lucian_armasu.