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How censoring China’s open-source coders might backfire

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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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