Chinese Users Turned GitHub into a Land of Free Covid Speech

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.”

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