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 emojis.
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.)
Thousands of posts by China's beleaguered tech workers have deluged GitHub in the last month 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 190,000 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 — then the largest ever recorded — 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 last 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.
This year, local authorities arrested eight more labor advocates across China, including three editors at a well-known labor rights website.
But the campaigners insist their campaign is not political. They simply want companies to follow existing labor laws, which limit work schedules to 44 hours a week.
So far, they say smaller companies are receptive.
"The response has been really radical," says Suji Yan, a Shanghai-based programmer. Last month, he and his wife, Katt Gu, designed a free software license for the 996.ICU GitHub campaign that lets companies signal they follow labor laws.
"A lot of small and medium companies started to put all their work in the anti-996 license to show that they are a good company and they respect the law and peoples' lives. ... It's all happened in the last 48 hours [of putting up the license] and it's all going very fast."
The original GitHub 996 project has now spawned regional meetup groups in southern China, where many tech companies have offices, as well as offshoot chat groups for specific tech sectors
Organizers have also crowdsourced an employers "blacklist" containing dozens of companies that they say have illegally forced employees to work more than 70 hours a week and written petitions to Chinese government ministries, including the state labor union.
"In the future, we hope that this project is not just a group for 996 programmers. We hope that it can become a place where all software workers come to together and organize in order to strive for their labor rights and interests," said Victor Xu, a GitHub contributor.
The growing 996 project on GitHub may place Microsoft, which has significant business interests in China, in a tough spot. It has introduced a software suite tailored for Chinese government use. It also owns LinkedIn, the only major Western social media platform accessible in China, which frequently blocks content and accounts in China deemed politically sensitive.
Microsoft did not respond to requests for comment.
"It remains to be see if the government does make a request for Microsoft to take down these projects ... and whether Microsoft will be willing to play ball," said Griffiths. "This could be a really important test for Microsoft and for GitHub."