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Reference Tool On Web Finds Fans, Censors
After Flowering as Forum, Wikipedia Is Blocked Again

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 20, 2006

BEIJING -- When access to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit, was disrupted across China last October, a lanky chemical engineer named Shi Zhao called his Internet service provider to complain. A technician confirmed what Shi already suspected: Someone in the government had ordered the site blocked again.

Who and why were mysteries, Shi recalled, but the technician promised to pass his complaint on to higher authorities if he put it in writing.

"Wikipedia isn't a Web site for spreading reactionary speech or a pure political commentary site," Shi, 33, wrote a few days later. Yes, it contained entries on sensitive subjects such as Taiwan and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, but users made sure its articles were objective, he said, and blocking it would only make it harder for people in China to delete "harmful" content.

Shi was hopeful the government would agree. When the site was blocked in 2004, he had submitted a similar letter, and access had been quickly restored. Since then, the Chinese-language edition of Wikipedia had grown, broadening its appeal not only as a reference tool but also as a forum where people across China and the Chinese diaspora could gather, share knowledge and discuss even the most divisive subjects.

But today, four months after Shi submitted his letter, Wikipedia remains blocked.

The government has declined to explain its actions. But its on-again, off-again attempts to disrupt access to the site highlight the Communist Party's deep ambivalence toward the Internet: The party appears at once determined not to be left behind by the global information revolution and fearful of being swept away by it.

Officials tolerated Wikipedia at first, perhaps because it seemed to be exactly what the party had in mind when it began promoting Internet use 11 years ago -- an educational resource that could help China close its technological gap with the West, encourage innovation and boost economic growth.

But as the Chinese Wikipedia flourished, the authorities apparently came to see it as another threat to the party's control of information, and an example of an even more worrying development. The Internet has emerged as a venue for people with shared interests -- or grievances -- to meet, exchange ideas and plan activities without the party's knowledge or approval.

With 111 million people online and 20,000 more joining them every day, the landscape of Chinese cyberspace resembles a vast collection of new and overlapping communities. Although Chinese write less e-mail than Americans, they embrace the Internet's other communication tools -- bulletin boards and chat rooms, instant-messaging groups and blogs, photo-sharing and social networking sites. A popular feature of the Chinese search engine Baidu lets users chat with others who have entered the same keywords.

Studies suggest this digital interaction is changing the traditional structure of Chinese society, strengthening relations among friends, colleagues and others outside family networks. In a multinational survey, a much larger percentage of Internet users in China than anywhere else said online communication had increased their contact with people who shared their hobbies, professions and political views.

The Communist Party polices these emerging Internet communities with censors and undercover agents, and manages a Web site that it said received nearly a quarter-million anonymous tips about "harmful information" online last year. But the methods the party uses to control speech and behavior in the real world have proved less effective in cyberspace, where people get away with more, and where the government is often a step behind.

When authorities catch up, citizens often have already weakened the party's grip on public life and succeeded in expanding civil society. They have organized charity drives for rural schoolchildren and mobilized students for anti-Japanese protest marches. And they learned to work together to write an encyclopedia.

"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.

Story of Tiananmen Square

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.

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.

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