It was downloading a virtual private network that ultimately convinced Joe that he wanted to be a programmer. On the other side of China’s firewall three years ago, he stumbled across American journalist Steven Levy’s book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, which describes hackers not as malicious actors but people who saw the potential of the internet to benefit all — visionaries who understood early on the revolutionary possibility of computers. This idea, that programming could be chaotic and creative, resonated with Joe while he explored the internet beyond the reach of China’s censors.

“I found myself attracted by the idea of open source and hacker culture, and interested in the challenging part of programming,” said Joe, whose name has been changed to protect his identity. He learned to program by joining free web development classes online and looking at existing code on the Microsoft-owned GitHub, the world’s largest open source code repository. Today, he is a software engineer in Shanghai.

Open source code has been essential for the rapid growth of China’s tech sector. At Chinese tech companies, programmers like Joe have at their disposal foundational building blocks of code freely available on GitHub. This allows them to make their own rather than starting from scratch every time, meaning they can iterate and scale fast. With their code hosted in public for all to see, companies benefit from programmers around the world raking it over for errors; programmers learn from each other’s experiments and mistakes in real time. But while open source code has helped bolster China’s tech scene, the idea behind it — borderless exchange of information — contrasts with Beijing’s controlled approach to managing the internet.

Uncertainty hangs over GitHub’s future in China. Many fear that the site could be banned by China’s internet censors for hosting a workers’ protest or information about the coronavirus. Developers have raised concerns that American regulators could pull the plug over the company’s business with Chinese firms, though GitHub has said the open source code itself is exempt from these export controls.

Amid the tensions, Beijing has embraced open source in the development of emerging technologies, especially in areas like artificial intelligence and 5G. The goal is not only to position China on the global cutting edge of high-tech development but for Chinese companies to rely solely on homegrown talent and supply chains. In recent months, the Chinese government has championed domestic alternatives to widely used international open source institutions, particularly Gitee, a direct parallel to GitHub

But adopting open source technologies means embracing transparency, standardization, and a borderless philosophy — one that may sit uncomfortably with China’s push for technological self-reliance. “Basically, you cannot nationalize open source,” said Julian Sun, Beijing-based senior research director at tech industry analysis firm Gartner. “It’s already global.”

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Rooted in the pioneering days of the early internet, the open source movement is founded on the concepts of iteration and reciprocal transparency. If one company’s developer wants to build a particular function into its software, they can go to a code repository like GitHub and see how others have solved the same problem. The more eyes there are on the code, the better it is; companies that make their code public benefit from developers combing it over, catching bugs, and submitting suggested fixes. GitHub has grown into the largest code repository in the world, with more than 40 million users and 206 million code repositories. Even the software behind F-16 fighter jets runs on open source technology. 

China is home to the fastest-growing number of GitHub users outside of the U.S. Through the site, programmers in China don’t just learn new code — they are exposed to what they describe as the “open source way of thinking,” based on a philosophy of free exchange of ideas and information, without government interference or regulation. Despite the discordance of these principles with China’s approach to controlling the internet, code hosted on GitHub has been essential for the country’s tech sector. If it is blocked, developers know they need an alternative.

Developers’ concern the code hosted on GitHub could be a casualty of the escalating tensions with the U.S. was among the reasons for the Chinese government’s move to promote homegrown platforms, said Yik Chan Chin, a computer scientist and associate professor of communications at Beijing Normal University. “The technical community started to reflect on what the strategy is to protect information technology companies in the future. People started to worry. … What will happen to all the open source software and apps stored in that platform?”

In July, one of China’s top tech policymaking bodies, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, joined Huawei, Tencent, and a handful of top universities in a high-tech consortium endorsing Gitee as the official hub for China’s open source community. Shortly after, Huawei, Tencent, Alibaba, Baidu, and other tech companies announced the launch of the OpenAtom Foundation, China’s answer to The Linux Foundation, a long-standing pillar of the international open-source community.

The foundation’s flagship project is Huawei’s mobile operating system, HarmonyOS, intended to rival the dominance of Android and Apple’s operating systems, with the code hosted on Gitee.

Huawei has previously relied on Google’s Android operating system, but the Chinese company’s inclusion on the Entity List has meant that Google can no longer support the partnership. Android is not only the most widely used mobile operating system in China, it’s also the basis for China’s varied, inventive, and well-developed app ecosystem. The odds of success for HarmonyOS hinge on whether Huawei can encourage developers to build apps for the platform.

There are an estimated 780 million smartphone users in China, and Huawei accounts for more than 40% of the smartphone market in the country. Huawei has said it’s aiming to get HarmonyOS onto 400 million devices this year, including smartphones, wearables, and TVs. It could create an enormous market for developers to make products for Harmony in China alone. Developers have criticized the company for not yet releasing enough information to determine how truly independent the operating system is.

“Gitee’s future depends on attracting quality open source projects onto its platform, from both in and outside of China, which in turn attracts developers from both China and elsewhere to collaborate and contribute,” Kevin Xu, venture investor and founder of newsletter Interconnected, told Rest of World.

“It takes years to build that kind of network effect among developers that GitHub has currently,” said Xu over email. “It’s impossible to know what will be the catalyst for Gitee. Having a central government ministry’s support does not help in either attracting top-tier projects or developers from inside and outside of China; it only helps with getting business from highly regulated or government customers.”

Gitee does have advantages over GitHub, which requires a baseline level of English to use. Many programmers in China either access the U.S. site through mirrors or through Chinese-language blogs, which can be outdated. GitHub’s leadership has expressed interest in opening a dedicated China operation, and authorities have reportedly encouraged the company to expand, but that has yet to materialize. A more widely used Chinese-language environment could allow more programmers to join in on open source coding. 

However, Beijing’s push for a vibrant open source ecosystem based in China could be hamstrung by its own, long-standing objections to the environment that birthed the movement — the free and open exchange of information. The controlled internet behind the Great Firewall is not as rich with information as the unfettered web beyond it.

“There are differences in how people access knowledge in China versus how people access this information outside of China,” said Joe. “Because of the Great Firewall, there are huge quality differences between the knowledge and information you can get from Google and Wikipedia [vs] Baidu.”