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Reference Tool On Web Finds Fans, Censors

Qiao Yingxin, center, 25, a graduate student, wrote about architecture and biology for the Chinese edition of Wikipedia.
Qiao Yingxin, center, 25, a graduate student, wrote about architecture and biology for the Chinese edition of Wikipedia. (By Philip P. Pan -- The Washington Post)

"Wikipedia is special because other places don't have this kind of discussion, at least not such an intellectual discussion. It's a place where people with different backgrounds interact," said Shi, a prolific contributor to the Chinese Wikipedia. "But that wasn't even our goal. Our goal was just to produce an encyclopedia."

Meeting of Minds

Created by volunteers who write and edit articles in a collaborative process, Wikipedia is the Web's largest reference site, and it boasts editions in more than 200 languages.

The Chinese one, launched in May 2001, was blank for more than a year before Michael Yuan, a graduate student in mathematics at Beijing University, stumbled across it in a Google search. Yuan said he was enchanted by the English edition, and saw it as "an interesting place to study, hold discussions and share the pleasure of learning and writing." When he noticed the Chinese site was empty, he set out to build it.

On Oct. 30, 2002, Yuan created the first entry, a one-sentence definition of "mathematics." He was soon joined by Sheng Jiong, a Shanghai native studying law in Singapore, who wrote on the "People's Republic of China."

In the beginning, the Chinese edition was heavy with science and technology. The Norwegian mathematician Kirsten Nygaard was added before Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern China. But as months passed, people from around the world began to submit articles on a variety of subjects, including wine and cars, history and politics.

In July 2003, a prolific Hong Kong user known online as Lorenzarius sparked one of the site's first political debates with an essay urging people to avoid "China-centrism." He argued, for example, that the war that began when Japan invaded China in 1937 should be called the "Second Sino-Japanese War" instead of the "War of Resistance against Japan," as it is referred to by the party.

Most who responded posted objections, saying that almost all Chinese knew the war by its official name. But they also endorsed his larger point about trying to maintain a neutral point of view in Wikipedia's entries.

A few months later, another debate erupted over how contributors should resolve disputes on the site. Some advocated a system in which only the most active users could vote, but Sheng argued that all users should be treated equally. Lorenzarius concurred, and urged users to try to compromise and seek consensus before resorting to a vote.

To many educated in China, these governing principles of Wikipedia -- objectivity in content, equality among users, the importance of consensus -- were relatively new concepts. Yuan said he consulted the work of philosopher John Rawls and economist Friedrich Hayek to better understand how a free community could organize itself and "produce order from chaos."

"We had heard of these ideas, but they really didn't have much to do with our lives," said Yuan, now a computer programmer. "In school, we were taught an official point of view, not a neutral point of view. And we didn't learn much about how to cooperate with people who had different opinions."

In early 2004, state-run newspapers began writing positive articles about the Chinese Wikipedia, and the coverage fueled further growth. By February, more than 3,000 people had registered as users and there were more than 5,000 entries. By April, the site was getting nearly 100,000 page requests per day. By May, the number of definitions on the site had climbed past 10,000.

Then, on June 3, 2004, people in China who tried to visit Wikipedia saw an error page instead. The government had blocked the site on the eve of the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

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