Liberating Wikipedia in China (almost)

By Elen Wu

(Fortune Magazine) -- After blocking Wikipedia for nearly a year, Chinese authorities in October allowed access to most of the online encyclopedia's English-language entries and, in some cities, to the Chinese-language version as well.

Although there's no official explanation, theories abound. One is that censors have devised a more sophisticated filtering system for blocking pages. But others believe that Beijing realized it was better to have mainland Chinese citizens contributing to the user-created encyclopedia than to have entries written exclusively by those critical of the regime.

That was the argument made by Cui Wei, an active Wikipedian in Beijing, who appealed to his Internet service provider during one of the first blockages in 2004. "We lose a chance to present China's voice to the world, allowing evil cults, Taiwan independence forces, and others to control the development of relevant material in the project and to present a distorted image of China," Cui wrote at the time. Cui says the recent unblocking may be more of a technical lapse on the part of China's largest Internet service provider - the site is available using China Telecom connections in some major cities but not through China Netcom.

Ross Mayfield, CEO and co-founder of Socialtext, a wiki software company, has a different view. "Marxism-Leninism fails to compete in a knowledge economy, where markets are conversations," he says. "When the world's greatest source of free knowledge cannot be accessed, the long-term impact must be considerable."

The Chinese-language version of Wikipedia, which began in 2002, has 96,000 entries, a far cry from the 1.5 million entries in English. Although some are direct translations, most Chinese entries are original contributions. The most edited site in Chinese is about Mao Zedong, which starts off with a rosy description of the Great Helmsman as "a poet and master of calligraphy." The English-language description, by contrast, refers at the outset to Mao's "failings," including the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, which resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese and "have been widely criticized."

Chinese-language entries for Tibet, Taiwan, Falun Gong, and the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests differ from the English-language versions and carry warnings about accuracy and bias. They also have restrictions on users' ability to edit them.

Some English entries are still blocked in China, says Andrew Lih, a former Columbia University journalism professor who is in Beijing researching a book on Wikipedia. The description of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown cannot be viewed at all in English, and there are at least some restrictions on the English-language entry on Tibet. But Shi Zhao, who helps administer the Chinese-language site and who spent the last year accessing Wikipedia through proxy servers located outside China, thinks it unlikely that new filtering systems have been put in place. "We would be able to tell the difference," he says.

Shi had another explanation for why the site was suddenly unblocked: guanxi. He says a well-connected friend, whom he would not name, sent a letter to the Department of Propaganda shortly before the unblocking. The friend told him, "The government is now convinced that Wikipedia is neutral."

That explanation would please Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, who calls the unblocking "a big step forward" and notes that "it's good for passionate Chinese users to have a voice and for us to have more diverse views."  Top of page