April 10, 2019 10:28 AM ET
China is remarkably successful at scrubbing its Internet of social dissent. Twitter and Facebook have been blocked ever since deadly ethnic riots in 2009. Chinese social media platforms employ armies of internal censors to take down posts, images and even emoji.
But this month, coordinated dissent has popped up in an unexpected place: GitHub, the world’s largest open-source site that lets programmers collaborate on code. (GitHub is owned by Microsoft, which is an NPR funder.)
China’s beleaguered tech workers have deluged GitHub in the past month with thousands of posts protesting “996” schedules — 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week — and demanding better working conditions.
Tech-savvy programmers in the world’s most thoroughly censored cyberspace are turning to unconventional means to collectively organize. They created a “repository,”or collaborative project, on GitHub called “996.ICU,” based on a joke that a 996 schedule will send you to the intensive care unit. It’s become one of the most popular projects on GitHub, with more than 200,000 GitHub members following the project.
“First they came after my two breaks. Then they came after my remaining break. Then we had 996,” one GitHub programmer wrote in Chinese on the 996.ICU page last month.
The viral GitHub campaign puts Beijing in a tight spot: How do you keep China’s Internet just free enough to enable economic development without opening the door to protest?
“GitHub has always presented something of a dilemma because the service is so successful in how developers use it to share code and share software. If you cut off China from it, it can present genuine problems for developers and for tech firms,” said James Griffiths, the author of The Great Firewall of China.
The site’s role as an influential platform for creating and sharing anti-censorship software tools within China has made it a target before. It was briefly blocked within China in 2013. Then in 2015, GitHub was briefly taken offline by a DDoS attack, or distributed denial of service — the largest recorded at the time — from servers later traced back to Chinese state telecom giant China Unicom. Access to certain pages and projects have been selectively disrupted.
But for now, GitHub remains accessible in China.
Over the past decade, Chinese authorities have systematically cut off other tools used to coordinate collective action, such as Twitter, WhatsApp and even Instagram. Popular domestic platforms, such as Tencent’s WeChat app and the Twitter-like Sina Weibo, are increasingly monitored.
“Other groups have not been able to have their concerns raised as prominently as we have. This is because normal Chinese media and social media platforms are heavily censored by the Chinese government and so their information cannot be shared to the public,” a 996 programmer who goes by the alias Deleted Account tells NPR.
Despite his involvement through GitHub, the programmer said he was “scared to death” of political retribution: “I am not optimistic about our long-term prospects. I think the Chinese Communist Party will see us as terrorists and use the most modern weaponry to make us obey.”
The 996 campaigners face risks in their efforts for better working conditions. In the past year, labor activists in China have encountered a new wave of suppression. More than 30 students, activists and factory workers are still being held incommunicado after they were detained last summer for trying to unionize factory workers.