China has long been trying to reduce its reliance on foreign IT companies, a trend that accelerated after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed the extent of U.S. government surveillance last year.
U.S. IT companies, such as IBM and Cisco Systems, reported sharp drops in China sales last year because of the "Snowden effect," as the government in Beijing cut purchases on suspicions that their products could be used to spy on China.
The rift between the two countries deepened this week after the Justice Department unveiled criminal cyber-espionage charges against five Chinese military officers.
On Tuesday, China summoned the U.S. ambassador in Beijing for a dressing-down, the Defense Ministry blasted the U.S. accusations as hypocritical, and the government published new statistics that it said showed massive cyberattacks on China originating from the United States.
While China's ban on Windows 8 is not seen as a direct response to the U.S. actions, it nevertheless represents another sign of the growing mistrust between the two nations. At a seminar on cybersecurity in Beijing on Wednesday, representatives of U.S. IT companies expressed concern about the "escalation" of the cyber-dispute between Beijing and Washington and the effect it might have on their business operations.
"The decision by the Chinese government seems to have been made before the charge raised by the U.S.," said Shen Yi, an associate professor at the School of International Relations and Public Affairs at Fudan University in Shanghai. "However, the charge made against the Chinese military made this decision non-negotiable."
"Trust on cyber issues between the two countries has deteriorated further," he said. "However, China cannot ban all Microsoft products. Most of Chinese government computers are using Windows 7 or Windows XP."
The ban on Windows 8 covers new PCs, laptops and tablets purchased by the government, but it does not affect private users, according to a notice issued by the Central Government Procurement Center. China has been developing its own operating systems based on Linux technology, but neither of the two main systems on the market has proved popular commercially.
Ni Guangnan of the Chinese Academy of Engineering claimed that Windows 8 used an "unsafe" technical structure, arguing that its internal antivirus program scanned users' computers regularly. "If they want to monitor us, Win 8 is the most suitable system," he was quoted as saying.
In response, Microsoft said in a statement that it has been working with the Central Government Procurement Center and other Chinese agencies "to ensure that our products and services meet all government procurement requirements, and we'll continue to do so." The company said it was "confident that Windows 8 meets all of these requirements," and it noted that large numbers of customers around the world, including governments, have embraced Windows 8 "as a modern, secure operating system."