Friday, September 15, 2006

Wikipedia VS China

Shi Zhao slides the computer mouse, making rapid-fire clicks and in the space of a minute or so finds about a dozen minor errors to be tweaked on Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia that anyone can edit.

"There's really nothing to it," the 33-year-old Beijinger said with a grin after fellow 'Wikipedians' at a conference in Hong Kong goaded him into an impromptu demonstration of how he became king of edits on the Chinese-language edition.

Since he discovered Wikipedia ( four years ago, Shi has become something of a celebrity in the community, having made some 70,000 edits, averaging nearly 50 a day.

Shi's feat is even greater given that technically, he should not have access to the site. Last October, the Chinese government blocked access to Wikipedia, which has more than 5 million articles in 229 languages.

In a sense, the fate of the massively popular Web site is nothing new. The ruling Communist Party routinely denies access to sites it deems subversive and filters Internet pages for sensitive words.

But experts believe the block highlights a head-on clash between what Wikipedia stands for -- free knowledge created by the people -- and the Party's obsessive control over the production and flow of information.

The site's founder, Jimmy Wales, is outwardly hopeful that this is all just one big misunderstanding.

"Even if you agree that some blogs should be blocked or some kinds of propaganda should be blocked -- which I don't agree with -- but even if you do agree with that, it still strikes me that blocking all of Wikipedia is a huge mistake. It's a simple error, or a failure to understand what we're doing," he said.

"Ninety-nine point nine-nine percent of what's in Wikipedia has absolutely nothing to do with politics at all."


Of course, Wikipedia has entries on subjects like Tibet and Taiwan independence, the banned Falun Gong spiritual group and the bloodily suppressed pro-democracy protests of 1989.

But China experts, Internet analysts and, deep down, Wales himself, think the block probably runs deeper than an effort to censor a handful of sensitive articles on a largely innocuous online encyclopedia that is the world's 16th most visited Web site, according to Alexa Internet, which monitors traffic.

"The censor is threatened by the way Wikipedia works, not just some specific pages on the Wikipedia site," said Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at the University of California, Berkeley.

Based on Internet software that allows any registered visitor to add, remove or edit content, Wikipedia's editorial process is transparent and often described as democratic.

Anyone can post something, and anyone else can edit it, so biased and inaccurate articles tend to get deleted or corrected, and all sides of contentious issues generally get a fair hearing.

In China, the Party seeks to assert its authority over all publishing and to ensure that its version of events prevails.

"At a deeper level, at a philosophical level, I think any authoritarian regime has to worry about these new technologies allowing people to have the tools to interact and think," Wales told Reuters on the sidelines of the conference.

The community-building effect of Wikipedia sets it apart in the eyes of the Chinese authorities, too, said Andrew Lih, a new media researcher who is writing a book about Wikipedia.

"It's a bunch of grassroots folks who can mobilize very quickly to create content, and that's something, for an environment where they believe in control of the media, that's a pretty scary prospect," Lih said.


When access to Wikipedia was blocked without notice in October, Shi Zhao thought it would be short-lived like previous outages in June and September 2004. Almost one year on, he says, the effects are felt.

"Before the block there were some people in the mainland who wrote some things quite well," he said. "But after it was blocked they stopped."

Still, the outage hasn't stopped him or the small community of Wikipedians around him who use proxy servers and other tricks to gain access to the site.

Meanwhile, Wales is working quietly to try to get the block lifted. At the Chinese Wikimedia conference in Hong Kong last month, he hoped to get a better sense of where to go for help.

"One of the problems we have is that it is a black box for us. We don't know who to contact or how to contact them," Wales said. He plans to visit Beijing early next year to talk at a local university and, he hopes, meet government officials.

To him, the greatest tragedy of the block is that information about China, and the mainland Chinese point of view, is not getting on to Wikipedia.

"Our strategy is patience," he said. "And repeating over and over and over that we feel that it's a simple mistake, and that the vast majority of Wikipedia is not controversial so we should be unblocked. I don't know if this strategy will work."

Copyright © 2006 Reuters Limited.