The impending ban or acquisition of TikTok and ByteDance’s lawsuit against the Trump administration have sucked up all the oxygen in the US-China tech zeitgeist. A gigantic IPO, possibly the largest in the world, by Ant Financials is also looming on the horizon. Consequently, one story with potentially much farther-reaching impact got buried.

That story is the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT)’s anointment of Gitee, a homegrown Git-based developer collaboration platform, as the domestic “national champion” to drive open source growth in China. It got a blip on TechCrunch, and I included the original announcement in last week’s Interconnected Weekly. That's about it.

To understand why this development could have global significance, we need to first understand Gitee, MIIT’s role in China’s technology landscape, and open source’s own “gift culture” and global reach.

What is Gitee?

As readers of Interconnected know, I loathe the intellectually lazy comparisons that are common when talking about Chinese and American tech companies and try to avoid the “X is the [American company Y] of China” shorthand. Sure there has been plenty of cloning by Chinese companies of American success stories (and increasingly in the opposite direction), but both economies, cultures, and consumer behaviors are complex in their own ways and ought to be treated with nuance.

Sadly in Gitee’s case, this lazy framework happens to be rather accurate. It is the GitHub of China and nothing more.

History and Product

Gitee started in 2013 and was incubated out of OSChina, the country’s largest open source community website that started in 2008. OSChina owns Gitee, and even today the main contact email on Gitee’s homepage is a `` address. When Gitee started, GitHub (the current incumbent in the code repository hosting space) was a five-year-old Series A startup that was already gaining traction in various open source communities, especially the Ruby on Rails community.

If GitHub didn’t revamp it’s own UI just a couple of months ago, the two platforms would’ve looked virtually identical, except for a different color scheme and one displaying many more Chinese characters than the other. (The degree of similarity reminds me a bit of RenRen and Facebook in the early days of social media in China.)

It’s not completely fair to say Gitee has done nothing new. It does have more social tools, like direct messaging, which GitHub does not support. It also has an embedded web-based IDE (Integrated Development Environment, aka text editor for developers) though it’s not clear how many developers use it in place of existing popular solutions, like VSCode or IntelliJ. GitHub continues to add new features at a rapid clip, even after the Microsoft acquisition, like GitHub Actions and Discussions (in beta), so it’ll take quite a few years before Gitee can reach feature parity, if ever.

(Before writing this post, I tried to sign up for a Gitee account to experience it fully as a developer, but got stumped by a bizarrely difficult captcha process that took me at least five tries without success. I didn’t know I was this bad at reading fuzzy letters. This level of friction and poor user experience would’ve made any developer balk and leave.)

Market Traction

For the most part, Gitee is a typical venture-backed startup though it has not attracted much investment so far. In 2019, Gitee received a small strategic investment from Baidu and, in exchange, Baidu migrated some of its flagship open source projects, like its self-driving framework Apollo, to Gitee to seed more adoption. It claims to be the 2nd largest code repository platform in the world. This claim is not that far-fetched considering that China-based developers’ activities on GitHub is the 2nd largest group by a wide margin. If you include Hong Kong-based developers with China, it may be the largest cohort, exceeding that of the United States. It’s likely that a solid proportion of Chinese developers have Gitee accounts, along with GitHub, which would justify Gitee’s 2nd place claim.

Source GitHub Octoverse 2019:

From the business side, Gitee’s go-to-market approach is a classic enterprise strategy, which is, again, not that different from GitHub, GitLab, or other similar products. It counts Huawei, China Telecom, and a handful of banks as enterprise customers -- all companies with national strategic importance. With MIIT’s official endorsement, Gitee’s enterprise traction within China will grow. That also means it will have no traction outside of China, but doing business globally was never part of Gitee’s ambition, though that contradicts its claimed purpose to foster open source (more on that later).

When I was writing my 3-part series “Open Source in China'' in May, I only briefly mentioned Gitee as one of the minor players in the ecosystem. MIIT’s anointment will boost Gitee’s profile and status, because it is now the designated “national champion”. There will be more government support for the platform. The company will get more investment from funds that like to align themselves closely with government initiatives. I can even see a day when Gitee will IPO on the Shanghai STAR exchange, similar to other much bigger “national champions”, like SMIC in the semiconductor industry.

There are still lots of unknowns to how Gitee will grow as a product. What is clear is that Gitee is now a “policy-driven” company that will rely heavily on the government direction-setting and protectionism, quite similar to its investor Baidu. While all current Chinese tech giants have benefited from some level of protectionism in the past, Alibaba, Tencent, Huawei, and now ByteDance have all grown their core technologies and products to a level where they can compete with other global players on those terms alone. Not Baidu. And not Gitee.

MIIT’s Role

MIIT is the most relevant central government ministry to pay attention to when it comes to China’s technology sector. It has embraced open source in an official policy planning document in 2016, titled: “2016-2020: Development Planning of Software and Information Technology Services Industry” (unofficial translation). This document laid out a few initiatives (more like proclamations) where open source was the centerpiece:

“...promote the effect that the open source community has to support innovation, strengthen the real-world application of open source technology in innovation, build an open source ecosystem that is advantageous to innovation in an open, collaborative, and global fashion...” (unofficial translation)

The endorsement of Gitee is the result of an official government project procurement in May that called for proposals of solutions for an “open source hosting platform”. This is perhaps the first step that MIIT took to concretely involve itself in open source.

MIIT official project procurement announcement

In the end, the group that won the project was a consortium of 10 organizations that included: Huawei, a few technical universities and think tanks, a few other companies, and, of course, OSChina. Thus Gitee.

Why did Gitee win? It’s really the only game in town. I highly doubt GitHub or GitLab submitted a proposal.

If MIIT was simply interested in embracing open source and lending its support to Chinese open source developers where they are working and collaborating now, GitHub would’ve been the obvious choice. On Zhihu, a Quora-like service in China where many developers congregate to discuss technology topics (thus a good proxy for assessing interest level), more than 84,000 people follow GitHub. Gitee? 243 (at the time of this writing).

How will all this play out?

There are not enough details to speculate. As the current four-year planning period ended in 2020, MIIT is likely working on the next four years of planning, where Gitee will play a significant role.

However, it is likely that any open source project that MIIT or its various sub-bureaus will use in the future will have to be hosted on Gitee. If the project is already on GitHub, the company or team that runs the project will probably have to maintain another copy on Gitee. This requirement may extend to many of the strategic tech sectors that are under MIIT’s jurisdiction.

All this is done to exert some level of national “control” on the open source technologies that are important to China’s path towards self-reliance, just in case GitHub becomes inaccessible due to more sanctions or policy changes from Washington.

This fear is not unwarranted. Right now, GitHub is accessible albeit with performance issues here and there, but no one can guarantee that will continue in this current environment between the US and China. Being a subsidiary of Microsoft, GitHub may also be caught up in the potential Microsoft-TikTok deal in ways that no one can predict.

There’s a lot to untangle, and the future is murky. Thus, some contingency planning is quite reasonable.

But is this attempt to “nationalize” open source in China going to work?

Open Source Can’t Be “Nationalized”

As you might’ve guessed by now, the title of the post is a rhetorical question. You can’t “nationalize” open source.

But the bigger point is: it’s dangerous to think you can.

It’s smart for a government to embrace the innovative energy of open source to boost its own technological advancement. China is doing it. I’ve advocated in this Wired opinion piece that the U.S. should be doing the same.

But no government can or should try to “nationalize” open source, because it contradicts the very nature and culture of open source that made it the technological force that it is today.

Eric Raymond, one of the founding members of the free software and open source movement, wrote a profound essay called “The Hacker Milieu as Gift Culture” in the 90s. In it, he explained that the open source hacker culture is predicated on the “gift culture”, where one gains status and respect by giving away work product and creativity. The “gift culture” stands in contrast to two other models: “command hierarchy” (aka top-down control) and “exchange economy” (aka the free market).

By controlling or “nationalizing” open source, or even trying to do so, you are converting something that’s based on a “gift culture” to either a “command hierarchy” or “exchange economy”. If that happens, then open source is no longer open source.

Now, “gift culture” only works if there’s a presumption of abundance, not scarcity. And Raymond’s essay cited fascinating anthropological examples where a “gift culture” is adopted in some aboriginal cultures, where they live in mild climates with abundant food.

I don’t blame the Chinese government for not feeling like they are living in “mild climates with abundant food”. Despite how rich China has become in a GDP sense, it is sorely lacking in core, industrial technology and still cannot stand on its own two feet without reliance on the United States and other countries. It is operating in a climate of scarcity, not abundance.

Thus, it is rational to approach these challenges transactionally. However, forcing a transactional or top-down model onto open source will kill the very thing the Chinese government hopes open source will fuel, as stated in MIIT’s policy document: innovation.

Bifurcating open source, by anointing Gitee and pushing other “nationalization” initiatives, will only slow down innovation, not speed it up.

The top-tier engineers in China (there are many) will continue to innovate on GitHub or other global platforms, and hop over the GFW if they have to, because that’s where they find the best information and collaborate with the best talent from around the world. (In fact, some top tier commercial open source companies implicitly make GFW-hopping a recruiting requirement by purposely hosting job descriptions as a Google Doc. If you can’t find a way to read the doc, you are probably not a good fit.)

Without the mindshare of your top-tier engineers, no amount of technology transfer will matter, because quite frankly the code isn’t worth much if you don’t have enough qualified people to understand, improve, and innovate on top of it.

In turn, China’s innovation will suffer and global innovation will suffer, because China’s best and brightest have been making important contributions globally in fields like AI, cloud computing, climate science, and many others. For China’s sake and the world’s sake, I hope MIIT understands that it cannot “nationalize” open source.

China’s posture towards open source is perhaps the most important thing that no one is paying attention to right now.

Until people do, I’ll just be working on my fuzzy-letter-reading skills, so I can hopefully pass Gitee’s onerous captcha test one day.

If you like what you've read, please SUBSCRIBE to the Interconnected email list. New posts will be delivered to your inbox (twice per week). Follow and interact with me on: Twitter, LinkedIn.






《互联》的长期读者都知道,我很讨厌在谈论中国和美国科技公司时常见而懒惰的那种比较方式,也尽量避免用 “X是中国的(Y美国公司)”的那种简写。诚然,中国很多公司确实大量克隆了美国成功的产品(最近有越来越多地“反方向克隆”),但无论是经济、文化还是消费者习惯,两国都有其自身的复杂性,应该有更细致的分析去对待。



Gitee成立于2013年,是OSChina孵化出来的。至今Gitee还是OSChina的产品之一,就连Gitee主页上的电子邮件箱还是`` 。Gitee刚起步时,GitHub(当今代码托管平台服务的行业老大)是一个仅成立五年的A轮公司,但已经得到许多开源社区的认可和采用,特别是Ruby On Rails社区。


说Gitee什么新东西都没有也不算公平。它有更多的社交工具,比如私信,GitHub是不支持的。它也有个自己的Web IDE(集成开发环境,程序员的文字编辑器),虽然还不清楚有多少用户使用这个IDE,代替现有的更流行其他选择,如VSCode或IntelliJ。虽然被微软这个巨头买了,但GitHub仍然在快速地增加新功能,比如GitHub Actions和Discussions(beta),因此Gitee要达到功能对等还需要几年时间,甚至永远赶不上。




Source GitHub Octoverse 2019:
























自由软件及开源运动的创始成员之一,Eric Raymond,在90年代写了一篇深刻的文章《黑客境界里的“贡献文化”》。他在文章中解释说,开源黑客文化是建立在一种“贡献文化””的基础上,在“贡献文化”中,人们通过无常赠送自己的工作成果和创造来获得地位和尊重。“贡献文化”与另外两种模式形成鲜明的对比:“命令式阶层”(或自上而下的控制)和“交换经济”(或自由市场)。






中国的顶级工程师(很多很多)只会继续在GitHub或其他全球性平台上工作和创新,需要翻墙就翻墙,因为只有在那种平台上才会找到最好的信息,与来自世界各地最nb的人才合作。(事实上,有些顶级的开源公司已经故意职位描述放在Google Doc上,从而把“能翻墙”作为招聘的要求之一。如果你找不到,看不了Google Doc,就不是合适人选。)