When the coronavirus first spread through China in January, Chinese PhD student Weilei Zeng watched the pandemic unfold online from his apartment in Riverside, California. Thousands of miles from home, he frantically tried to keep up with news of the crisis, following the rare outpouring of discontent that flooded Chinese social media: lockdown diaries penned by anxious patients; video footage of overcrowded hospitals; tributes to Li Wenliang, the young doctor who was reprimanded for “rumor-mongering” when he first warned the public about the virus (and would die of Covid-19 only a month later). Then, inevitably, as Chinese censors stepped in to scrub the internet clean, Zeng would return to a link he’d visited just a few days earlier to find only the familiar 404 error message—indicating that the page had vanished.
Zeng soon discovered that these posts were not gone. Many had been preserved and quietly tucked away in an unexpected corner of the internet: GitHub, the world’s largest open source software site. Founded in 2008 and acquired by Microsoft in 2018, GitHub is popular among developers and programmers, who use the platform mostly to share and crowdsource code. Zeng often used it as a way to collaborate with his university peers on research projects. But after the pandemic hit, he stumbled on thousands of Chinese internet users repurposing GitHub as a Covid-19 archive, racing against censors to document the outbreak in the form of news articles, medical journals, and personal accounts.
One collaborative project, known as a “repository,” was named #2020nCovMemory. Founded by seven volunteers from around the world, it included everything from investigative reports published by Chinese news magazine Caixin to the diary entries of Wuhan writer Fang Fang, who criticized the local government’s suppression of information and initial failure to warn the public about the virus. Another repository, called Terminus2049—named after a planet in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series—collected sensitive articles that were otherwise inaccessible behind China’s Great Firewall, such as an interview with Ai Fen, the doctor who first discovered the virus in December. In February, Zeng joined a repository called 2020nCov_individual_archives, to crowdsource online diary entries and citizens’ accounts of everyday life during the pandemic. “It made me feel much more at peace, knowing that these stories were being saved somewhere,” Zeng says.
On the Chinese internet, global social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are banned, and domestic platforms like WeChat and Weibo are strictly monitored. But GitHub, known to some Chinese internet users as the “last land of free speech in China,” remains accessible. Chinese authorities cannot censor individual projects, because GitHub uses the HTTPS protocol, which encrypts all traffic. But they are also unwilling to ban GitHub entirely, because it is invaluable to the Chinese tech industry. The country’s developers are heavily dependent on the open source community; more than 690,000 Chinese users signed up for an account in 2017 alone. China is second only to the US in the number of open source projects on GitHub. Blocking the site would be too costly. An attempt to do so in 2013 was met with widespread outcry; tech industry leaders like Kai-Fu Lee, former head of Google’s China operations, argued that the block would “derail the nation’s programmers” and lead to a “loss in competitiveness and insight.” Days later, the block was lifted.
All this has made GitHub one of the few sanctuaries from censors and a platform for online resistance. GitHub is frequently used to distribute anti-censorship software such as GreatFire. In March 2019, China’s frustrated tech workers created a GitHub repository called 996.ICU to share their grueling work schedules, crowdsource a “blacklist” of companies that have illegally forced employees to work more than 60 hours a week, and drafted petitions to government ministries to demand better working conditions. (The name 996.ICU is based on a joke that the 996 schedule common among Chinese tech workers—9 am to 9 pm, six days a week—will send you to the intensive care unit.) In response, a group of GitHub and Microsoft workers in the US expressed support for the movement, and petitioned Microsoft to ensure the 996.ICU repository remained “uncensored and available to everyone.”
The platform’s unique resilience can be explained through “the Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism,” says Margaret Roberts, a professor studying Chinese censorship at UC San Diego. The theory, posited by internet thinker Ethan Zuckerman, states that if a website pairs sensitive politics with broadly appealing, popular entertainment—say, lolcat memes—the website will be more challenging to censor, because users want access to the Cute Cat. “But in the case of GitHub,” Roberts says, “the Cute Cat just happens to be the world’s open source code.”
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For Chinese authorities, GitHub’s continued presence on the country’s internet poses a familiar dilemma: on one hand, online dissent must be controlled. On the other hand, they are massively invested in the Cute Cat. At the heart of this is the precarious balancing act that the government has been performing over the past two decades: Can it keep the internet just free enough to nurture economic growth but not so free that it opens the door to political instability?
But GitHub may soon help the Chinese alleviate that tension. Last December, the company announced plans to open a separate subsidiary in China. According to a report by the Financial Times, GitHub COO Erica Brescia said that the company, in discussions with the Chinese government, was planning a “phased approach” to expansion. A separate GitHub subsidiary could potentially allow the Chinese government to enjoy the economic perks of the open source platform and the ability to censor projects it deems unacceptable. “Users inside of China would be more easily targeted by Chinese political censorship and surveillance,” says Jeffrey Knockel, researcher of Internet censorship and surveillance at Citizen Lab.
Although a spokesperson for GitHub recently stated that they “do not have plans to set up an entity in China, at this time,” Microsoft has made similar decisions in the past. The company already offers censored versions of Bing, LinkedIn, and other products in China. GitHub did not respond to requests to interview the COO or reply to follow-up questions about the December announcement.
Any potential forking of the product—the segregation of users into two platforms, a Chinese version and a US version, based on nationality—would be “another step towards the bifurcation of the internet,” says Adam Segal, the director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. We’ve seen increasing examples of this, from Zoom’s recent decision to stop offering direct services to China-based users, and Bytedance’s clear demarcation of its TikTok and Douyin products.
The challenges that GitHub faces by engaging with China raises issues that the tech industry has faced since Google pulled out of the country almost a decade ago: Should companies give in to the demands of the Chinese government in order to gain access to a massive slice of the worlds’ online user base?
“There are many platforms such as Google, Twitter, or Facebook that have chosen to not comply with Chinese censorship and surveillance requirements at the cost of not having access to that market,” Knockel says. “[But] Microsoft has had a long history of complying with Chinese censorship and surveillance requirements in order to maintain access to the Chinese market.”
If it came down to such an ethical trade off—between erasing China’s Covid-19 posts from the digital ether in exchange for access to the country’s open source code, between the preservation of a collective history and the advancement of technological progress—what decision would Microsoft make? What would be gained, and what would be lost?
In April, after the lockdown in Wuhan ended and the virus brought under control in China, the #2020nCovMemory repository disappeared, taken down by its creators out of security concerns, the original link now yielding a 404 error. The team decided to suspend operations of the page, due to the “situation” in China—perhaps out of fear of their personal security and government reprisal. Indeed, later in the month, a Beijing-based contributor to Terminus 2049, was arrested by police for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” according to a notice given to his family, although it is unclear whether his arrest was related to the GitHub repository.
The 2020nCov_individual_archives remain.
“We’re just saving personal stories. It’s not like we’re positioning ourselves as confrontational to the government in any way,” Zeng says.
Still, Zeng admits, he gets nervous. “I guess we’re all just playing boundary ball,” he says, a common phrase in China that means getting as close as possible to the bounds of what is permissible without crossing the line. When does the personal become political, the archive become alternative history, and preservation become an act of resistance? “I guess you never really know for sure where that line is,” Zeng says. “You never know when they’ll come for you.”
Updated 9/10/2020 1:00 pm ET: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Microsoft acquired GitHub in 2016. It was 2018.