Thanks to the notorious Great Firewall, Chinese companies have been given license to build all kinds of services that rival Western firms, from Facebook to Google to Office.
According to a report from MIT Technology Review (opens in new tab), China's answer to GitHub, called Gitee, is suspected by developers of censoring open-source code, most likely at the direction of the government.
Earlier in May 2022, Chinese developers found their open-source code had been blocked off pending a review, something that was set to become the norm. Gitee released a statement (opens in new tab) in effect saying the service "didn’t have a choice".
Gitee code review
The exact reasoning for the shift is unclear but many suspect the Chinese government has decided to expand its online censorship more broadly to include code that developers need to work.
"Code review in OSS is about improving the code quality and building trust between developers," Berlin-based developer Han Xiao, who runs Jina AI, told MIT. "Adding politics to the code review will hurt both, and eventually roll back the open-source movement in China."
Almost every aspect of Chinese online life is careful monitored and controlled by the authorities, who are seeking to quell political resistance. Some areas, such as open-source developing, had remained free up until recently.
According to one estimate (opens in new tab), GitHub, acquired by Microsoft in 2018, had 7.3 million users in China in 2021, the most outside of the US. Overall, GitHub has around 73 million users.
Sanctions muddy the water
Gaining a clear insight into the thinking of the Chinese government is impossible for outsiders. However, it seems likely that US sanctions on Huawei and other Chinese companies in 2019 created the conditions for an increased lockdown on outside services.
Prior to these sanctions, China had been fairly welcoming of open-source software and tools. Tencent and Alibaba released their own open-source tools and Gitee was created soon thereafter. The service says (opens in new tab) it has around eight million users.
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While the motivates are up for the debate, the impact has been dramatic. The change on May 18 meant that huge amounts of code were suddenly unavailable to developers, who were given no warning and had no time to prepare contingency plans.
One developer that spoke to MIT said that a laborious manual review helped reclaim numerous projects, but there surely isn't enough bandwidth to do that in all cases.