Chinese citizens are racing against censors to preserve coronavirus memories on GitHub

Trove of now-banned memories.
Trove of now-banned memories.
Image: Chesnot/Getty Images
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Facing the risk of having information and memories of the coronavirus epidemic erased from the internet by censors, Chinese citizens are turning to the internet beyond the Great Firewall to keep that content alive.

One example of this crowdsourced effort to preserve coronavirus memories is a project (link in Chinese) set up about a month ago on US-based GitHub, the software development website. The project, which was started by seven volunteers based around the world, chronicles and collects personal narratives and Chinese news reports on the disease. “The purpose of the page is to serve as a database for researchers, such as those studying epidemic prevention and natural language processing, as well as internet users,” said a notice on the GitHub page titled “#2020 nCov memory,” referring to the short form of novel coronavirus.

“The preciousness of the personal accounts is that they preserve the voices from people in different jobs, genders, and social classes rarely seen in official or mainstream media outlets. They offer a highly diversified and comprehensive perspective [on the epidemic],” said Shao Tang, a co-founder of the project in a WeChat post.

Microsoft-owned GitHub remains accessible in China, and has said it is committed to free speech by, for example, making government takedown notices public. The fact that GitHub has stayed immune to Chinese censors prompted some developers to launch the “996.ICU” project on the website last year to document companies that demand a “996 schedule”—9 am to 9 pm, six days a week—as a way of expressing their dissatisfaction toward the culture of excessive work hours at Chinese tech companies. As such, GitHub has gained visibility among Chinese internet users, some of whom call it (link in Chinese) “the last remaining land allowing freedom of speech in China”—though in a recent interview (paywall) on the company’s expansion plans in China its CEO admitted that it faced potential difficulties squaring its transparency commitments with operating in the Chinese market.

As part of government efforts to cleanse the internet of content critical of its handling of the Covid-19 outbreak, three Chinese citizen journalists have gone missing after they recorded videos of the situation in the city and uploaded them to YouTube and Twitter. Posts containing “sensitive” information, such as hashtags in remembrance of deceased doctor whistleblower Li Wenliang are also being censored on Weibo and WeChat, and the country’s top cyberspace regulator has punished some websites and mobile apps for publishing “illicit content” on the outbreak. Beijing has even made clear it wants media outlets to churn out positive coverage of the country’s handling of the outbreak.

The project on GitHub catalogs some of the most crucial media reports on the epidemic, such as Chinese financial news outlet Caixin’s 40,000-word cover story (link in Chinese) from Feb. 3 that paints a vivid picture of how the crisis unfolded due to the Wuhan government’s delays in revealing information. The news reports uploaded to the page contains their original URLs, screenshots of the articles, and cached links.

It has also collected experiences written by Chinese citizens that could be censored due to their criticism of the government, including journals from Wuhan-based Chinese author Fang Fang, who started chronicling (link in Chinese) the situation there since the city was put on lockdown in late January. “Wuhan is now in a disaster… A disaster is not when one has to wear a face mask, banned from leaving their house, or required to present entry permits for getting into buildings. It is the cars of funeral parlors, which used to transport only one body every trip and now carry several bodies wrapped up in bags, it is not only one member of your family dying of the virus, but the whole family dying too within several days or a month,” she wrote in a Feb. 16 diary entry (link in Chinese).

Another GitHub page named “2020nCov_individual_archives” (link in Chinese) has collected online journals recording everyday life in China during the outbreak published by users of Douban, a Chinese film review website favored by the country’s more liberal internet users. The introduction to the project reads: “Every individual matters. Every individual has a role to play.”