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China’s censorship is hindering open-source software movements

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Thousands of developers in China had their open-source code on Gitee, a state-funded alternative to the global repository platform Github, censored and hidden from the public. In a statement, Gitee said that it was manually reviewing the projects, a requirement for all open-source code before publishing.

For the open-source software community, the censorship was unexpected as it would have an impact on transparency and global collaboration.

“Code review in OSS is about improving the code quality and building trust between developers. Adding politics to the code review will hurt both, and eventually roll back the open-source movement in China,” says Han Xiao, the Berlin-based founder of Jina AI, a commercial open-source software company.

Github is the go-to repository platform for most developers. However, the Chinese government, fearing a reliance on a US-based company, funded a consortium of companies and institutions, including Gitee, to grow it into a “Chinese independent open-source hosting platform.” Gitee has more than 8 million users.

Many Chinese developers are starting to prefer Gitee because it is based in China.

“Due to this proximity, the performance is dramatically better than GitHub or GitLab [a similar overseas platform],” explained Daniel Bovensiepen, a researcher based in Beijing who had 24 projects that were affected by the latest censorship.

It is not yet clear what prompted the censorship. To get their projects back, developers are being forced to submit an application proving that their projects do not violate any Chinese laws.

Li has gone through the manual application process and recovered 22 of his 24 projects.

“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 explained. Because there are no better domestic alternatives, Li feels people will stay: “People might not like what Gitee is doing, but [Gitee] will still be required to get their daily job done.”

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