Github gives Chinese developers censor-proof forum

By Elliott Zaagman
3 min read
A website associated with the 996.ICU forum quotes to the Chinese constitution’s promise of ‘Laborers’ right to rest.’ (Screenshot captured by TechNode)

One of the more engaging stories to emerge from the China tech scene in recent weeks is the “996.ICU” movement. Workers in Chinese tech companies have begun expressing their displeasure with a company culture that demands 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. workdays, six days per week. The “ICU” tag comes from an oft-repeated joke that the grueling work schedule has landed some workers in the intensive care unit.

Frustration with a working style that many view as unsustainable has been a theme in China’s tech community for years. However, with slowing economic growth and venture capital increasingly difficult to access, many firms have been forced to lay off staff or reduce positive incentives for employees. Worse rewards and less security seems to have pushed some tech workers to the tipping point, inspiring the viral campaign.

996.ICU took off as a repository on Github, the collaborative software development platform that helps developers store, manage, track and control changes to their code.

Some Github users are using the platform for viral activism, and the bulk of these user-activists seem to be Chinese. As of mid-day April 11, 996.ICU was the top trending repository on the platform, with more than double the amount of stars as the one in second place (which also happens to be a Chinese discussion forum).

Double-edged sword

In the past, platforms for activism have been blocked in China, or pressured to moderate content in line with the country’s strict guidelines for online discourse. Yet the importance of Github for China’s growing tech industry means that blocking it would be counterproductive for China’s broader aims.

“It’s hard to overstate how critical Github is for developers,” explains Christian Grewell, assistant professor of interactive media arts and business at New York University’s Shanghai campus. “Many, if not most, developer teams around the world are collaborating over Github, and the open-source code on the platform allow teams to develop products in days that would otherwise take months… life as a developer without Github is like life in a Chinese city without Wechat.”

Github’s indispensable role for developers, combined with Beijing’s inability to control it, has proven to be a dilemma for China’s cybersecurity apparatus. Github was briefly blocked in China in 2013, until public outcry from China’s tech community—led by Kai-Fu Lee—led to a reversal of the block two days later.

In 2015, the site was the victim of a distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack attributed to Chinese hackers. The attack was conducted using malicious Baidu JavaScript and traced back to state telecom giant China Unicom’s infrastructure, thought to be due to projects on the Github platform that could undermine China’s domestic cybersecurity efforts.

More recently, Beijing seems to be taking a less forceful approach to influence Github, sending official requests for the removal of content which it considers sensitive. In some cases, Github has complied with the requests. China-based browsers from companies like Xiaomi and Tencent have restricted access to the red-hot repository.

While past clashes between Github and Chinese authorities have centered around code and projects under development, it appears that speech on the platform may be emerging as an equally sensitive issue.

Hub of free speech

A May 2018 Quartz article pointed out that of the top 25 Github projects, four were written in Chinese, and six contained no code. While its community of users is relatively small compared to the world’s major online social networks, the developers on the site hold coveted skill sets, which China must attract in order to achieve its technological ambitions.

Movements such as 996.ICU do not make working for a Chinese company sound very appealing, and when it’s the hottest trending repository on Github, it drives away some of the world’s most coveted talent.

“China wants to promote its tech sector as world-leading, but what the complaints over the 996 culture reveal is how poorly some of these teams are managed,” says NYU’s Grewell. “If a group of developers is managed well, 996 should not be necessary in the majority of cases.”

There is also speculation that Chinese authorities may place additional pressure on Microsoft, who acquired Github last year, and has significant business interests within China. However, censorship concerns were voiced loudly by Github users at the time of the acquisition, and nearly religious fervor for open sharing of information underpins the open-source developer community. Any seemingly Beijing-influenced attempt to manage the platform would be a very hard sell for Microsoft to make to its user base.

For now, Github seems to be the rare space that offers free speech on the Chinese internet. We’ll see how long it lasts.