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Reference Tool On Web Finds Fans, Censors
Technology bridged that divide. A student wrote a computer program to automatically convert text from one set to the other.
Slowly, a community was consolidating outside the party's purview, one that was learning to settle its own disputes, that crossed borders and tolerated those who contradicted the party's views, and that began organizing get-togethers in the real world as well as cyberspace.
It must have been disturbing to some in the party, which has long sought to dominate all organized social activity in China. In September 2004, the government blocked access to Wikipedia again.
Some blamed the decision on an influx of Internet users who were upset that the censors had shut down a popular university Web site. Others linked it to a message posted by a disgruntled Wikipedian on the losing side of an argument two days earlier.
"I have already called the police, and told them there is a lot of Taiwan independence, Falun Gong and other reactionary content here," the user wrote. "I even gave them many entries as examples. After a few days, they will come for an inspection. You'd better get ready. . . . Ha, ha."
'China's Voice to the World'
To the community's relief, the second block lasted only four days. Then, for more than a year, Wikipedia operated free of any government interference.
The encyclopedia flourished, passing the 40,000-entry mark in September, and the community thrived, growing more stable and mature. Users continued to discuss and write about sensitive subjects, branching into current events, but the rancor of the debates seemed to subside. When newcomers resorted to overheated language, veterans stepped in and cooled things down.
So the government's most recent decision to block Wikipedia was a deep disappointment. Shi Zhao submitted another appeal. Cui Wei, 25, a graduate student at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, wrote one, too.
"By blocking Wikipedia, we lose a chance to present China's voice to the world, allowing evil cults, Taiwan independence forces and others . . . to present a distorted image of China," he said. "We lose a chance to share academic knowledge with the world, and as users, a channel to gain information. . . .
"Such an act is no different than cutting off our tongues and shutting our eyes and ears. It is closing and locking up the country in the age of the Internet."
As the weeks passed, many concluded Wikipedia had been blocked for good.
In December, a message appeared on a Wikipedia page alleging the site had been "conducting anti-China activities under the flag of being neutral" and accusing its senior users of being "running dogs for American imperialism." Some suspected the note was posted by a government agent.
The number of people using the Chinese Wikipedia site has dropped, but devoted users are finding ways to access it. The community now boasts 45,000 registered users, most from the mainland. Among the site's 56,000 entries is one that explains how to get around the government's firewall.
Researcher Zhang Jing contributed to this report.