DAVID GREENE, HOST:
China is pretty successful at scrubbing its Internet of social dissent. But this month, dissent popped up in an unexpected place. GitHub, the world's largest open-source site, where programmers collaborate on code. Chinese tech workers have flooded GitHub with demands for better working conditions. NPR's Emily Feng reports on why this puts Beijing in a tight spot.
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hal was thrilled to find work at a big Internet company soon after graduation. That is, until he found out about his brutal work schedule, nicknamed 996, working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.
HAL: So - which means, there is no working-life balance because there was just working, no life.
FENG: Like many programmers NPR spoke to, Hal is nervous about retribution from his employer and China's Communist the CCP. He's careful not to speak in Chinese or reveal other identifying features.
HAL: I am intentionally hiding my family name in order to get rid of the surveillance of CCP.
FENG: There are tens of thousands of programmers who, like Hal, wanted to coordinate a campaign. But Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites are blocked or censored in China. So they turned to GitHub. engineers worldwide use GitHub to share and design code. These programmers use those functions to wage a high-tech labor campaign. They created a GitHub project, 996.ICU based on a joke that a 996 schedule will send you to the intensive care unit. Within days, the project was trending globally as one of GitHub's most popular open-source projects.
JAMES GRIFFITHS: GitHub's always presents something of a dilemma.
FENG: That's James Griffiths, the author of the recent book, "The Great Firewall of China."
GRIFFITHS: The service is kind of so successful, in terms of how developers use it to share code and share software and stuff. If you cut off China from it, it can present genuine problems for developers and for, you know, tech firms.
FENG: Griffiths explains how GitHub has always walked a fine line with sensors. In 2015, it was even briefly taken down by Chinese government hackers.
GRIFFITHS: But then, access was reinstated. GitHub is, you know, unfortunately from the censors' perspective. GitHub is kind of too useful. It's very, very difficult to block it entirely.
FENG: The anti-996 campaign is also a test for Microsoft, which bought GitHub last year. It also owns LinkedIn, which is allowed to operate in China because it is censored.
GRIFFITHS: So it remains to see if the government does make a request of Microsoft to take down these projects and to, you know, exercise a level of censorship, or maybe even just to kind of block these projects being viewed in China.
FENG: Microsoft is a financial sponsor of NPR. Chinese authorities harshly suppress labor campaigns. For example, some 30 activists and workers are still detained for trying to unionize a factory last summer. But 996 campaigners stress, their campaign is not political. They simply want companies to follow existing labor laws. And they say companies are receptive.
SUJI YAN: Yeah, and the response is very radicalized.
FENG: That's Suji Yan, a Shanghai-based programmer. He and his wife, Katt Gu, designed software so companies can show they follow labor laws.
SUJI: A lot of companies - small, medium companies, they start to put all their work in an anti-996 license to show that, OK, can we are, like, the good company, you know. We respect law and people's life. It's still going very fast.
FENG: Unlike factory workers or migrant laborers, China's tech workers are educated and middle class. They hope that, and the international reach of GitHub's online community will force the tech sector's hand before the censors figure out a way to shut them down.
Emily Feng, NPR News, Washington.
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