China, Wikipedia, and Censorship's Perils


The mainland Chinese lost a key tool for communication and debate when censors blocked Wikipedia. Search engines aren't immune, either

China's Internet censors have been busy in recent days. Google's (GOOG) Chinese search engine was shut down (BusinessWeek.com, 10/22/07) for parts of Thursday and Friday, a spokesman for the company says. There were reports of similar actions against the search services for Yahoo! (YHOO) and Microsoft (MSFT). And one Chinese blogger reported that YouTube, the video service that Google recently bought, had been blocked last week. "Is that true another top website is going to leave us?" wrote Shi Zhao, a 34-year-old chemical engineer, on his blog.

There are no official statements explaining the crackdown. But it seems likely that China's censors have been particularly sensitive because of the gathering of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing (BusinessWeek.com, 10/1/07), an event that occurs every five years. In addition, the blocking of American search engines comes shortly after President George W. Bush met with the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader. Web surfers who tried to reach Google.cn ended up being forwarded to Baidu (BIDU), the Chinese search engine that dominates the market in that country.

Before the "Great Firewall"

The latest actions have been brief, with Google already back in business in China. But the experience of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, shows how long-term censorship can hamper Internet companies in China and can interfere with the growth of a community that stretches across national borders. China cut off access to the Chinese-language version of Wikipedia in late 2005, part of the construction of the Great Firewall (BusinessWeek.com, 1/12/06), and Chinese elsewhere bemoan the loss of their brethren. "Barring mainland Chinese users behind the Great Firewall crippled our site," says Titan Deng, a legal counselor for a newspaper in Taipei, Taiwan, who is actively involved in the Chinese-language site.

Deng and others recall fondly the days before the crackdown. Wikipedia gave Chinese-speaking people a forum for discussing and debating a wide range of topics, since the Web site allows people to post not only their own entries for encyclopedia topics but also justifications for their entries. The discussion forums allowed them to debate serious issues like Taiwan's independence and Falun Gong, both taboo subjects in mainland China, and to discuss more mundane topics, including the three different ways of saying "bus" in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China. For many, it felt like the formation of a Chinese community transcending geographic borders and political differences.

After several years of relatively stable access and rapid growth in the number of users, Wikipedia saw a major shutdown by China's censors in late 2005. Service has been sporadic since then, but the Web site has been blocked consistently in recent months. As a result, the number of users and contributors from mainland China has plunged. The proportion of visitors to Chinese Wikipedia from the mainland dropped from almost half two years ago to less than 10% now, according to a Wikipedia survey.

Stifling Serious Discussion

The nature of the discussion on Wikipedia has changed, too. With the majority of users now from Taiwan and Hong Kong, many people have shown more interest in local issues and Japanese pop culture than Chinese history or philosophy. Confucius is practically neglected next to Initial D, a popular Japanese comic book. The discussions and entries for the latter are more active than for the icon of Chinese philosophy.

The once-lively exchange of stories and culture has slowed, too. "There are so many beautiful folk tales about the moon around China that are left untold on Wikipedia," says Deng of Taipei. The 30-year-old says the site changed his perceptions of his neighbors. He grew up hearing negative stories about the mainland Chinese from his grandparents, who had lived through the Communist Party takeover in 1949, but his view of people on the mainland improved significantly after he collaborated and debated with several of the more thoughtful and open-minded people online.

Indeed, after China decided to cut off Wikipedia, the organization's founder, Jimmy Wales, said that the result would be to censor "the rest of the world" from hearing the voice of the Chinese people.

The Internet, of course, continues to have a profound effect on mainland China. The country has 160 million Internet users and 1.3 million Web sites, including many public companies traded in the U.S. such as Sina (SINA), Sohu (SOHU), and Netease (NTES). Many Chinese have embraced the latest wave of Internet sites, such as social networks and messaging services like San Francisco-based Twitter.

But many Chinese say Wikipedia provides an experience unlike those of almost any other Web site. While the online encyclopedia is freewheeling and debate can be intense, the rules of discussion are clear. Contributors are supposed to keep a neutral point of view, leaving any political or cultural biases out of their work. That discipline forces Wikipedia's users to listen to others and understand their concerns, allowing for more cooperative communication. "Wikipedia is not just a reference book," says Shi, the chemical engineer and blogger in Beijing. "It changes the mentality of many Chinese people by emphasizing objectivity and respecting others."

Hacking the Wall

There are still some mainland Chinese who can find their way around the censors to use Wikipedia. The tech-savvy and determined can use special software and proxy servers in other countries to access the Chinese-language site. But for most people, it's difficult if not impossible to contribute or even read the blocked version of Wikipedia.

That means the conversation among Chinese-speaking people may be limited, at least for now. "There are many things we don't agree on," says one blogger in China, who spoke on the condition that his real name would not be revealed. But he says there is a lot of value in having spirited debates over Taiwanese independence or other, similar issues. "It means that the readers can listen to different voices and make their own conclusions after that, instead of having to accept a view imposed on them."


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