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How censoring China’s open-source coders might backfire

On May 18, thousands of software developers in China woke up to find that their open-source code hosted on Gitee, a state-backed Chinese competitor to the international code repository platform GitHub, had been locked and hidden from public view.

Later that day, Gitee released a statement explaining that the locked code was being manually reviewed, as all open-source code would need to be before being published from then on. The company “didn’t have a choice,” it wrote. Gitee didn’t respond when MIT Technology Review asked why it had made the change, but it is widely assumed that the Chinese government had imposed yet another bit of heavy-handed censorship.

For the open-source software community in China, which celebrates transparency and global collaboration, the move has come as a shock. Code was supposed to be apolitical. Ultimately, these developers fear, it could discourage people from contributing to open-source projects, and China’s software industry will suffer from the lack of collaboration.

“Code review in OSS is about improving the code quality and building trust between developers. Adding politics to the code review will hurt both, and eventually roll back the open-source movement in China,” says Han Xiao, the Berlin-based founder of Jina AI, a commercial open-source software company. 

The rise of Gitee

GitHub, founded in 2008 and acquired by Microsoft in 2018, is the go-to platform developers around the world use to publish their code and then critique and learn from each other. This publicly available code—as opposed to the proprietary code created by companies or individuals—is referred to as open-source software. Of the 73 million people using GitHub as of 2021, 7.5 million are based in China, making them the largest group outside the United States.

But that level of dependence on the platform made the Chinese government wary, especially since American sanctions against Huawei in 2019 reminded it how much the nation still relies on certain foreign companies and services. GitHub is one of them.

At the same time, the open-source industry was growing fast in China. Major companies like Tencent and Alibaba released their own version of GitHub, and Gitee, backed by the established open-source community OSChina, began to take the lead in the domestic competition. So in 2020, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology contracted a consortium of companies and universities, led by Gitee, to grow the existing repository into a “Chinese independent open-source hosting platform.” Gitee now boasts over 8 million users.

Over time, some developers started to prefer Gitee over GitHub for a mix of reasons, from performance and cost to protection from foreign intervention. 

For Daniel Bovensiepen Li, a Beijing-based research scientist who uses Gitee for both personal and professional projects, its main advantage is that it is based in mainland China, which makes its service faster and more stable. “Due to this proximity, the performance is dramatically better than GitHub or GitLab [a similar overseas platform],” he says. Li has 24 projects hosted on Gitee that were affected by the latest change. 

Institutions with government ties are more likely to use Gitee. “The military, public universities, and state-owned companies—they are concerned with the fact that GitHub is eventually owned by Microsoft, an American company,” says Thomas Yao, the Shanghai-based founder of GitCafe, one of China’s earliest GitHub-like websites, which he sold to Tencent in 2016. Students and amateur developers can also be deterred from using GitHub by the costs and the difficulty of finding reliable VPN services in China, he says.

The impact

For now, there’s little clue as to what prompted the change, but censorship of certain types of language—profanity, pornography, and politically sensitive words—has been creeping up on the platform for a while. On Gitee’s official and public feedback page, there are multiple user complaints about how projects were censored for unclear reasons, possibly because technical language was mistaken for a sensitive word.

The immediate result of Gitee’s May 18 change was that public projects hosted on the platform suddenly became unavailable without notice. Users complained that this disrupted services or even ruined their business deals. For the code to be made public again, developers need to submit an application and confirm it doesn’t contain anything that violates Chinese law or infringes copyrights.

Li went through the manual review for all his projects on Gitee, and so far 22 out of 24 have been restored. “Yet I assume that the review process is not a one-time thing, so the question is if the friction of hosting projects will increase in the future,” he says. Still, with no better domestic alternative, Li expects users to stay: “People might not like what Gitee is doing, but [Gitee] will still be required to get their daily job done.”

In the long run, this puts an unreasonable burden on the developers. “When you are coding, you are also writing comments and setting up names for the variables. Which developer, while writing code, would like to be thinking whether their code could trigger the list of sensitive words?” says Yao.

With almost every other aspect of the internet, the Chinese way of building its own alternative has worked well in recent years. But with open-source software, a direct product of cross-border collaboration, China seems to have run into a wall. 

“This push to insulate the domestic open-source community from risks arising from the global community is something that very much goes against the core proposition of open-source tech development,” says Rebecca Arcesati, an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies and coauthor of a report on China’s bet on open-source. 

Technologists in China, she says, don’t want to be cut off from the global software development conversation and may feel uncomfortable with the direction China is heading: “The more Beijing tries to nationalize open-source and create an indigenous ecosystem, the less eager developers will be to participate in what they perceive to be government-led open-source projects.” 

And cutting off its global ties prematurely may interrupt the fast growth of China’s open-source software industry before its benefits to the economy can be realized. It’s part of a broader concern that overshadows China’s tech sector as the government has ramped up regulations in recent years: is China sacrificing the long-term benefits of tech for short-term impact?

“I struggle to see how China can make do without those global links with international open-source communities and foundations,” Arcesati says. “We are not there yet.”

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