Chinese Build Free Net Encyclopedia

Part Three in a series of three articles about China's Internet activity on the tenth anniversary of the country going online.

An informal group of Chinese volunteers is working to build an online encyclopedia called Chinese Wikipedia to create a free source of information for Chinese Internet users.

Chinese Wikipedia is a Chinese-language offshoot of Wikipedia, an online English-language encyclopedia that is also available in a host of other languages. Wikipedia is a wiki, a term that is derived from the Hawaiian word for "quick" and used to describe Web sites that can be edited by any reader, including anonymous visitors.

Work on Wikipedia started in early 2001 and the project now has more than 6000 active contributors working on 600,000 entries in 50 languages, according to the Wikipedia Web site, which notes the English version offers more than 260,000 entries. All of the content on Wikipedia is copyrighted under the GNU Free Documentation License, a license for free content developed by the Free Software Foundation.

Defying Expectations

By any measure of common sense, Wikipedia and Chinese Wikipedia shouldn't work. The wiki format allows any visitor to the Chinese Wikipedia Web site, or that of its English-language cousin, to modify any of the pages in the encyclopedia by adding, changing, or deleting information.

In theory, an Internet vandal could come to the site and easily deface or delete entries to the encyclopedia, wasting the efforts of numerous volunteers and rendering Chinese Wikipedia unusable. But wikis are essentially online databases of information and each modification is stored in the database, allowing information to be restored to the Web site if a page is deleted or defaced.

"The instantaneous editability surely is an attractive quality that will impact the future of Chinese cyberspace culture," says Menchi, a regular contributor to Chinese Wikipedia who requested his real name not be used for this story, in an e-mail interview.

Escaping Censorship?

Menchi, who was born in Taiwan, says the majority of the 100 regular contributors to Chinese Wikipedia are from Mainland China. As a result, most of the more than 9000 entries contained in Chinese Wikipedia are written using the simplified Chinese characters used in China, rather than the traditional characters used in Taiwan, he says.

"One would assume and hope the impact (of Chinese Wikipedia) would be positive, 'liberating' the Mainlanders from the restrictive Communist censorship," Menchi says. "But reality often has a funny way of backfiring on us. It is very possible at the first sign of trouble the Communist government will put the Great Firewall up and permanently cut Mainlander Wikipedians off."

So far, that hasn't been a problem.

"Many Westerners are shocked to learn that Chinese Wikipedia has never been 'firewalled' by the Communist government, but many Mainlander Wikipedians actually think it?s not surprising. They consider their government to be reasonable, so long as one does nothing insane to offend the government," Menchi says, noting that some contributors from Mainland China have suggested toning down entries on politically sensitive topics, such as Tibetan independence.

Neutral Viewpoints

One reason why Chinese Wikipedia has not been blocked by Chinese censors may be the site's insistence that all entries reflect a neutral point of view, a policy that defines all Wikipedia versions in other languages. The neutral point of view is intended to avoid editing wars between contributors competing to impose their interpretation of various subjects on other readers.

"The site is not blocked en masse at the site level because its not obviously pro or against anything because of the neutral point of view policy," says Andrew Lih, an associate professor and director of technology at the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Center.

Another reason Chinese Wikipedia has not been blocked by Chinese censors may be its low profile and relatively small group of regular contributors. As the site gets more attention and attracts more contributors, Chinese censors may decide to block access to the site, giving an indication of how much exposure censors are willing to tolerate for a site like this, Lih says.

"As the profile gets higher and higher it's going to be interesting to measure what threshold these folks have for it," he says.

Remembering Tiananmen

For now, the site remains accessible in China and makes available information on a range of sensitive topics, including an entry on the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

The entry, which includes the famous picture of an anonymous Chinese demonstrator facing off against a column of tanks, describes in detail events leading up to June 4, 1989, when Chinese soldiers used force to clear Tiananmen Square in central Beijing. It notes that the Chinese government reported more than 200 people were killed in that incident, including more than 30 students. But it goes on to note that foreign media reports estimated that more than 1,000 people were killed.

However, the entry also pushes the boundaries of objectivity, noting that some people believe the majority of the students who died on June 4, 1989, were hunger strikers who died of starvation--a theory that was not widely reported by the official Chinese media or foreign press.

By comparison, the same entry on the English-version of Wikipedia notes that estimates for the number of people killed range as high as 2600. The English entry makes no specific mention of official Chinese government estimates or the theory that those who died were hunger strikers who succumbed to starvation.

Looking to the Future

"The fact there is even the picture of the guy standing in front of the tanks in that article (on Chinese Wikipedia) is huge but there's other parts of it where you scratch your head and say, 'Well, I wouldn't put it that way,'" Lih says, noting that the openness of Wikipedia could serve to undermine the quality of information that is contained on the site.

"In the long run, as more Chinese get on to it, the Chinese Wikipedia could actually get worse in quality because you have people contributing to it that are not as enlightened or informed about this stuff as people who know the whole story," Lih says.

"On the other hand, it could open up a real debate. . . . This could be a real eye-opener for the folks in China," he says.

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