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Wiki reboot: Chinese Wikipedia makes comeback after early censorship

A censorship blackout lost Chinese Wikipedia many of its users. Now a new generation of mainland volunteers is resuscitating the site

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 August, 2013, 10:30am

When Yuan Mingli posted the first Chinese-language entry on Wikipedia in November 2002, he had no idea that the website was on the verge of becoming a globally influential movement. Yuan, then a 26-year-old postgraduate student at Peking University, only intended to create an online "notebook".

Wikipedia, the biggest online encyclopedia, run by the US-based non-profit Wikimedia Foundation, had only been launched the previous year and Yuan learned of it a few weeks before he made his first entry, when there was no Chinese version.

If administrators do not control sensitive content Chinese censors will block the site
wen Yunchao, activist

The site impressed Yuan, who majored in mathematics, and so he spent about a month studying the English version and then two weeks building the Chinese homepage and some basic web pages.

"It was in our department's lab, but I don't remember whether it was day or night," Yuan says. "I do remember though that the first entry I posted, in both simplified and traditional Chinese, was 'computer science'."

After more than a decade, and with about 715,000 entries, Chinese is the 12th most popular language for posts on Wikipedia, after Japanese, Polish and Portuguese, but slightly ahead of Vietnamese.

The mainland had nearly 600 million internet users as of the middle of last month. Yet there are only 1.4 million registered Chinese users on the site, and only 7,500 were active on Wikipedia as of last month - most of them from Taiwan and Hong Kong.

So given the large number of Chinese internet users worldwide, Chinese Wikipedia is growing at a snail's pace.

Mainland Wikipedians and internet analysts largely attribute this to internet censorship. Statistics show that there have been at least four major blocks on the Chinese site since 2004 and the most severe, between October 2005 and June 2007, completely stymied the site's growth.

"We had no access to the whole of the site and the impact on our community was huge," says Yuan, who is also the architect of well-known mainland science website guokr.com "During that time, Wikipedia was growing rapidly around the world, but not in China."

This blackout was bad timing for mainland users. It coincided with Wikipedia being hailed for showing the world a new way of collaboration and a new model for a non-profit operation. It was even the subject of a critically acclaimed book, Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams' Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, published in December 2006.

Many Chinese Wikipedians, unable to access the site for almost two years, switched to copycat sites, including Baidu and Hudong's encyclopedias. During the "Big Block", it was hard to find fellow Wikipedians to meet and chat with offline, Yuan says. He had organised mainland Wikipedians' first public gathering, in Beijing in July 2004. After graduating from Peking University in 2005, he moved to Shanghai and continued to meet other site contributors.

The meetings, however, soon dried up. Mainland Wikipedians had organised 40 public gatherings since the inaugural event, but there were none in 2007 or 2008, and only one in 2009. "The community shrunk massively during the block," Yuan says. "Many newcomers left." It is still unclear why censors blocked the whole site and why it later became accessible again.

To the new generation of mainland Wikipedians hoping to breathe fresh life into Chinese Wikipedia, censorship is no longer the biggest threat - now it is competition from copycats, and also new social media platforms.

Wilson Ye is hoping to change that with an online magazine called Wikipedian, of which he is chief editor. Ye, born in 1996, is one of the youngest of the mainland's 82 volunteer administrators.

Ye joined Chinese Wikipedia in 2008 in his hometown Shanghai, and is now at school in California. Last year he contacted fellow Wikipedian Addis Wang, a 19-year-old Shanghainese student studying in Ohio. After discussions about the future of Chinese Wikipedia, they found a designer and together published the first issue of Wikipedian - in simplified Chinese only - in December. Their aim was to choose interesting topics, curate the content based on the entries on Chinese Wikipedia, and publish a downloadable issue on the site.

Ye will arrive in Hong Kong next week to attend the annual Wikimania conference, being held at Polytechnic University. He will share his experiences in promoting Chinese Wikipedia and detail how and why the trio published Wikipedian.

"We decided to have a community publication," Ye says. "Compared with our competitor, Baidu Encyclopedia, we are not well known on the mainland. So we should first attract more readers. If some of them can become new Wikipedians, we will eventually have more entries."

Their first few issues received positive feedback within the community and they were encouraged to continue. The team has been making progress and the June issue was produced with a version in traditional characters.

Wang, meanwhile, who also became a Wikipedian in 2008, last year created the community's official account on Sina Weibo, a Chinese Twitter-like microblog service that is a also helpful in brand promotion.

Yuan says he is grateful that the younger generation are carrying the banner, and that he too had created an online publication a couple of years ago. But he lacked the time and manpower to sustain the project.

"A big challenge facing our volunteers is not having an idea, but sticking with it when they lack resources," Yuan says.

Zhao Jing, a prominent mainland blogger and columnist known by the pseudonym Michael Anti, says it is a critical time for Chinese Wikipedia because it is losing its competitive advantage.

"The online Q&A social media platforms, such as Quora and its Chinese copycat Zhihu, are alternatives for some Wikipedians," Zhao says. "Some vertical encyclopedia sites, such as MBA Encyclopedia focusing on management and business, are also squeezing Chinese Wikipedia's space."

Zhao says the Wikimedia Foundation shoulders some of the blame for failing to formulate a clear "strategy" for China, which has contributed to the slow growth of its Chinese community.

But both Yuan and Wen Yunchao, a well-known online activist and internet analyst, argue that given how unpredictable censorship policies are in China, "no strategy for China" is reasonable.

"Wikipedia is a user-generated content site, which means if the volunteer administrators do not control sensitive content there will be lots of excuses for the censors in China to block the site. So why should the foundation put money into such a project?" Wen says.

Chen Ting, then chairman of the Wikimedia Foundation's board of trustees, told a Shanghai Wikipedian gathering in 2010 that the organisation would pour more resources into the site in major developing countries. China, however, was not on the list, with India and Brazil taking priority.

There is some hope on the horizon. The number of new Chinese entries on Wikipedia has been gathering pace since last year, thanks to the use of "robot editors".

But new blood is needed because many first-generation Chinese Wikipedians are no longer active in the community, finding themselves busy with work or family commitments.

"There are quite a lot of questions the Wikipedia movement needs to consider," says Yuan, who now has a two-month-old daughter.

"For Chinese Wikipedia, I really hope it can have a freer space. But unfortunately, it won't happen in the near future."

Chinese Wikipedia milestone entries:

First entry: computer science

50,000th entry: Stokes' theorem

100,000th entry: Pedder Street clock tower

300,000th entry: 2001 ATP Ericsson Miami Open

400,000th entry: surname "Qin"

500,000th entry: Trans-Canada Airlines Flight 831 crash

600,000th entry: Zhaluo village in Qinghai

700,000th entry: Kioicho in Tokyo

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