GitHub, Activism & Censorship

The whole world is watching the developments of the corona crisis with fascination. Many days have now passed since the beginning of the almost apocalyptic situation, and accordingly, more and more knowledge about the origin and spread of the virus is coming to light. A fish market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, which is considered to be the origin of the virus, was the focus of reporting from the very beginning. The fact that the Chinese government withholds information and refuses foreign experts entry for research reasons confirms China’s disastrous handling of the situation. Furthermore, stories were made public that Chinese doctors who wanted to warn the population either disappeared or were forced by the police to remain silent. The recently disclosed information that a laboratory near the fish market in Wuhan was conducting research on coronaviruses with bats is putting the Chinese government in even greater need of explanation. There has been sharp criticism from all sides, such as at the beginning of May by the American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who accused China of concealment and deliberate action.

At the center of the latest scandal is the website GitHub. GitHub is a platform that provides software development projects on its servers. Users can upload, manage, and share their source code here.

Also on this page, digital records have been published that contain information regarding the coronavirus. A group of volunteer software developers has been working over the past weeks to prevent censorship and deletion attempts of information on the site. One of the participants was the Chinese man Cai Wei.

On the 19th of April, he was arrested by the Beijing police together with his girlfriend. The couple is now accused of inciting provocation and provoking trouble.

Terminus2049 was the name of the project on which Cai Wei, 27, his girlfriend Tang, also 27, and Chen Mei worked. According to information from the Hong Kong-based independent daily South China Morning Post, Terminus2049 is no longer accessible to Internet users in mainland China. The anti-censorship initiative and its website on the open-source platform GitHub were named after the most important planet in the “Foundation” cycle by science fiction author Isaac Asimov (1920-1992).

Since the 19th of April, the activists have been reported missing by their families and friends. It took the police almost one week to officially confirm the house arrest. According to Chinese police law, they can be detained there for up to six months. The accusations against them are “inciting disputes”; and “provoking annoyance”. These are accusations that the Chinese authorities regularly make against dissidents, people who rebel against mainstream and questionable policies.

Cai Wei and his girlfriend Tang worked voluntarily and without remuneration on this project. The initiative was founded at the beginning of 2018. The aim of the project was to combat the extensive censorship that takes place in China against sensitive data, information, and opinions. This has been the common practice of the Chinese communist government for some time. Now, these activities have turned against the volunteer group and they have been censored.

Their website became popular thanks to their ingenious camouflage of explosive pieces of text and information. The developers had a whole range of encryption options to put a stop to censorship. For example, they used “Hanyu Pinyin” to protect texts. This refers to a phonetic transcription of Chinese based on the Latin alphabet using intentional spelling mistakes. Furthermore, the Morse code or Braille was used. Even the elven languages “Sindarin and Quenya” developed by J. R. R. Tolkien and spoken in the fantasy books “The Lord of the Rings” were used as encryption methods.

Terminus2049 was last noticed by the Chinese authorities in January of this year because the activists made a screenshot with sensitive information from the doctor Ai Fen public. Ai Fen, head of the emergency department at the central hospital in Wuhan, was the first female doctor to warn of a Sars-like virus that had caused pneumonia in her patients. Already towards the end of last year, on 30. In December 2019, she posted a diagnostic report on a patient with pneumonia. Even then, she suspected a dangerous new type of coronavirus as the cause.

Li Wenliang, who also tried to warn of the outbreak of an epidemic at the end of December, received this information as well. He was ordered to the police, who forced him to stop the spread of his knowledge and to remain silent. Shortly afterward this same Li Wenliang died of the lung disease Covid-19. Public sympathy was tremendous, which increased the pressure on the Chinese censors even more. A wave of mourning and a cry for freedom of speech followed these events. Photos were published on the Chinese social media platform “Weibo” showing the then-deceased doctor Li Wenliang wearing a mask made of barbed wire. This was not only an expression of general sympathy but also massive criticism of the restriction of fundamental rights such as freedom of speech.

In March, an interview by the Chinese newspaper People with the doctor Ai Fen was published as part of the Terminus2049 project. But only a few hours after the publication the interview was already targeted by the Chinese censors. The interview was conducted by 34-year-old Chen Quishi, a lawyer and citizen journalist from Beijing. He traveled to Wuhan on the last train in February before the city was sealed off and went into complete lockdown.

Soon after the interview, Chen Quishi disappeared. According to information from Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental organization, the lawyer’s current place of residence is unknown.

His interview with Ai Fen had been archived on Terminus2049 and was therefore accessible to the public despite censorship. By imprisoning the volunteer staff of Terminus2049, the censors now want to demonstrate their questionable notion of order.