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Reference Tool On Web Finds Fans, Censors

Story of Tiananmen Square

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)

The entry on the "June 4 Incident" in the Chinese Wikipedia runs nearly 20 pages, but when it first appeared in September 2003, it was just three sentences. Posted by an anonymous user, it said troops seized control of Tiananmen Square after it had become a "base camp for various hostile forces." It did not mention any deaths or student protesters' demands for democracy.

Two months later, people began to edit the article, inserting a phrase about the pro-democracy movement and mentioning that "many city residents" were killed. But the Wikipedia community seemed hesitant. A few people tried to break the silence, adding thousands of words all at once. But others deleted them immediately.

Then, four months before Wikipedia was blocked, Sheng posted a message saying he planned to overhaul the entry. Slowly, he began writing a more detailed and objective account, posting it piece by piece, starting with a chronology of the demonstrations and putting off the more sensitive subject of the massacre for later. Another user noted that foreign news media had reported that more than 1,000 people were killed.

The changes prompted debate even before Sheng finished the project. One user attacked the article as biased, arguing that foreigners had used the students at Tiananmen Square to subvert the Chinese government. Others urged caution because of the political sensitivity of the subject.

"Regarding the June 4 incident, I know very little," one person wrote. "At least for the present stability, I hope we don't make an issue of this."

Shi Zhao, the chemical engineer and frequent contributor, objected to using the famous photo showing a lone student stopping a column of tanks. "It seems the entire article has very little from China's point of view," he added. "It's basically all the Western point of view. Is this a neutral point of view?"

But after Wikipedia was blocked on the eve of the Tiananmen anniversary, Shi -- who describes himself as a supporter of the Communist Party -- was among the first to call his Internet service provider to complain. He also submitted an appeal.

Then without any explanation, the government restored access to the site.

The 19-day disruption caused Chinese Wikipedia use to drop and prompted hand-wringing in the community that built it. Some suggested that the site practice self-censorship to avoid being blocked again. But most opposed the idea on principle.

"It would have violated our policies, because Wikipedia is independent of any government," Shi said. "We aren't publishing political editorials, just providing information from a neutral point of view."

Instead of backing down, the site attracted more users, and the debates intensified as people tried to hammer out their differences on subjects such as the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, the one-child policy and even the Chinese Communist Party.

Because users hailed from Taiwan as well as the mainland, the most passionate fights were related to the status of the self-governing island. At one point, there was even talk about splitting the site in two, because residents of Taiwan and the mainland write Chinese with different sets of characters.


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