As the Trump’s administration toughens up on China and its technology industry, the South Asian country is warily preparing to save itself from further Huawei-like situations. The next phase of US attack will likely be on the open source software and China doesn’t want to be caught unprepared.
For years, China has relied on Microsoft-owned GitHub for open source software. GitHub is the largest open source software in the world, powering most of the online activities of different platforms; from Netflix films to Instagram photos.
In China, tech companies and developers have confidently used GitHub until the US shut Huawei out of its technology supply chain. Huawei depended on US chips for its telecom technology, but Trump ordered US semiconductor companies to stop supplying it with chips, and that is consequently threatening to cripple the Chinese tech giant.
To prevent future occurrence, China is building on Gitee, an open source software company run by Open Source China (OSChina). SCMP reported that the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) chose the 7-year old firm in July, to construct an independent, open-source code hosting platform for China.
The concern that the United States’ government will at a point in the near the future, order American GitHub to halt business with Chinese companies has prompted China to activate a plan B.
“Borderless collaboration is one key characteristic of open source, however the geopolitical friction is forcing China to consider alternatives for sustainable tech-driven innovation,” said Charlie Dai, analyst at research firm Forrester.
In July last year, the Chinese tech industry started to express fear that the US may exercise its export control rules on GitHub and throw off Chinese developers depending on it. The export control rule says that content developed on GitHub needs to comply with US export laws, including the Export Administration Regulations (EAR).
China’s developer community became alarmed on noticing GitHub’s export rules because the EAR regulations were used to restrict export to Huawei.
Liu Chen, director of operations for OSChina said GitHub’s fate depends on how far US export sanctions on China goes.
“Whether China’s GitHub users will be affected depends largely on the strength and scope of US export sanctions against China, which we cannot determine,” he said.
GitHub allows free access to open source projects globally, with 40 million users and 44 million projects. SCMP reported that in a survey among 950 global IT leaders, conducted by enterprise open source software company Red Hat, 95 percent said open source was strategically important to them.
Therefore, cutting off China’s access to GitHub will be devastating to millions of developers. GitHub already restricts Iran and North Korea from accessing its platform, a development China may have seen as an example of what it is afraid of.
But GitHub said last year, in an effort to allay the fears, that “the provision of software services over the internet, such as the code collaboration in repositories on GitHub.com, is not subject to US export control mandates.”
However, the explanation did little to calm the nerves of Chinese developers. Gitee has been serving as an alternative to some five million users, hosting 10 million projects. But while Gitee has recorded a considerable inflow of people, it still faces the challenge of upgrading the quality of its repositories to be in par with GitHub.
GitHub has been a darling to millions of users due to the quality of repositories. Dai said that “most of the leading open source projects, spanning all technology domains, such as cloud-native, AI, IoT and blockchain, are hosted on GitHub.”
Nevertheless, China is not giving up on its quest to develop Gitee to curtail the impact a sudden US export restriction will have on its tech ecosystem. The company is planning to use the help of other 10 Chinese organizations including Huawei as backup to government’s support.
Notwithstanding, GitHub is planning to expand in China as it hosts a large number of its users. The South Asian country is the second largest source of GitHub contributors and users. SCMP said the number of GitHub users increased to 37 percent last year, indicating that most Chinese developers still see it as the best.