Can China Achieve Her Open-Source Ambitions?

Open source refers to a computer program in which the source code is available to the general public for use or modification.

From a legal point of view, the peculiarity of open-source software is that the original developer(s) (who would enjoy, pursuant to the Copyright Law of PRC, the copyright on the programming code, and thus the exclusive right of use and to economic exploitation), grant(s) a free license to use, modify and share the code with third parties, who can jointly cooperate for the further development of the software. Open-source code is thus the product of a collaborative effort, where programmers can improve the source code and share the changes with the community.

The open-source movement first started in the USA, but all the big tech companies in China have also extensively relied on open-source technology to quickly expand and evolve their own technology. It’s free, transparent and flexible enough to be modified to meet any company’s special requirements.

Some Chinese tech companies even adopted new open-source technologies before many of their American and European counterparts, in order to stay competitive in the growing and cutthroat Chinese Internet economy. One may think about, which began using Kuberentes (an open-source system for managing containerised applications across multiple hosts) in early 2016. Didi Chuxing, on the other hand, openly states that using open-source technology is essential to scale up to meet its own lofty ambitions.

An interesting example is WEPY, one of Tencent’s open-source projects which provides a framework to build mini-programs inside WeChat. Indeed, this project has greatly contributed to WeChat becoming the dominant platform in China.

The importance of China in the context of open-source projects worldwide can also be inferred by the fact China is the second largest user of GitHub, the world’s largest internet repository for open-source code and version control. Owned by Microsoft since 2018, GitHub is designed to enhance collaborative work since it allows developers from all over the world to share their projects with each other; any developer can upload their own work and seamlessly access others’.

Nevertheless, the fact that GitHub is owned by Microsoft has raised some concerns as to dependence on the US as for software development. “If China does not have its own open-source community to maintain and manage source codes, our domestic software industry will be very vulnerable to uncontrollable factors”, said Huawei executive, Wang Chenglu, at an event last August.

China is therefore aiming to take a step forward by promoting a wholly domestic software development platform, called Gitee, to become an independent alternative to GitHub.

Indeed, a recent report from China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), revealed aims to turn Gitee into an “independent, open-source code hosting platform for China”. The project, according to the report, will be completed by a consortium spearheaded by Open Source China. The domestic-code hosting platform is not only supported by the government, but also research universities and the private sector.

Gitee claims to have hosted more than 10 million open-source repositories and provided services to over 5 million developers so far. For comparison, GitHub reported having 100 million repositories and around 31 million developers worldwide last November.

Gitee is clearly confident there is space for a Chinese alternative to GitHub. The founder, who goes by the nickname, “Hongshu”, has declared, “An open-source ecosystem can’t be built overnight. It’s a process of building a tower with sand. We have faith in the innovative power of Chinese developers. We also believe in our perseverance and strength to strive”.

China is now well known for achieving her ambitions. Success in this field will reinforce her importance in the open-source community worldwide.

The article is published on the Nanjinger magazine on March 14th, 2021