Why did China finally unblock Wikipedia?

With my recent reporting on the Wikipedia block being lifted, many people have asked me, “Why do you think Wikipedia was finally unblocked in China?”

I believe it was because of the argument Jimmy Wales and fellow Chinese Wikipedians have consistently put forth — Wikipedia has a neutral point of view at its core, with no activist or subversive agenda to the site. In the end, I believe consensus among the authorities determined the benefits of Wikipedia far outweigh the risks, and signals their understanding of the beneficial nature of the emerging read-write Web. Read on for an explanation.

It took some time for government censors to get used to the wiki concept. The nature of China’s authorities is to fear what they don’t understand. But this is not unique to China. You don’t have to be a skeptical, authoritarian government to doubt the legitimacy and neutrality of Wikipedia. Commentators Robert McHenry and Nicholas Carr have been prominent skeptics. For rich irony, see Jaron Lanier’s gripe about Wikipedia called “Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism.” (That title alone should buy some credibility with China’s leaders). So after a year of watching Wikipedia rise in popularity, Chinese authorities understand the wiki phenemenon more and realize sitting on the sidelines is disadvantageous in two ways.

Dual Harm

The complete argument goes like this: With Wikipedia blocked, China suffers because its ranks of knowledge workers cannot access the top reference site in the world, and the world suffers from not having China’s expertise and input in Wikipedia. Sound familiar? This is a direct example of Wikipedia as the ultimate implementation of what Lawrence Lessig calls “read-write” culture.

China wants to read it, the world wants China to write to it.

Opening access to Wikipedia would be win-win, and the folks who unblocked Wikipedia likely realized this.

Lessons

More importantly though, this provides insight on how to effect change in the PRC, something I’ve been emphasizing for years – encourage China to approach the table, to join the benefits on their own motivation, and allowing them to “tap in.” Unfortunately, this has often not been the approach of Western governments or NGOs.

What doesn’t work? Pushing China solely on issues of freedom of speech, civil liberties for the sake of human rights. It’s just too easy to dismiss these as meddling, imperialistic Western viewpoints used as wedge issues. Do not forget, China was the victim of imperialistic designs which still have a deep effect on the psyche of Chinese leaders and issues of trust.

What does work? Asking China to join the community, because China’s knowledge workers are missing out on the best resource in the world and a resource that US and Indian engineers, scientists, academics and citizens are already using to increase their economic competitiveness. That’s the economic argument.

Also, Wikipedia benefits from having more PRC knowhow to improve its content in arts, history, culture and regional knowledge. China considers itself the vanguard of Chinese culture. Whether this is true or not, a Wikipedia with very few PRC contributions is certainly a concern for them. This is likely to have influenced the decision to allow their own citizens to influence the site, to balance out the majority comprised of Hong Kong and Taiwan contributors. That’s the cultural argument.

Blocking Bad, Filtering Less-bad

If we assume the authorities believe in allowing Wikipedia’s read-write culture into the PRC, but still fear subversive and “unharmonious” content, there is a compelling technical argument for unblocking — you don’t need a block on Wikipedia’s entire site by IP address, when the Great Firewall has finer grained URL- and Web page-level blocking that would suffice. While blocking at this level is not something Wikipedians would be happy to see, it’s certainly better than a wholesale block.

(This leads to a paradox — better technology in China’s Internet filtering methods could actually result in more sites being accessible.)

No one ever knows exactly why a block is put in place in China, or why its lifted. But in this case, it looks like the traffic is flowing, and users are signing up in the thousands. There will be more interesting stories of the “write” part of this story, as more PRC users become members of the editing community. Already, administrators in ZH are reverting a new wave of copyright violations, mainly from newbies who don’t quite understand Wikipedias free content license yet. But this is to be expected, and it is something they will learn quickly. Their influence in the community will be fascinating to watch.

And in the end, if you think about it, doesn’t it make complete sense that the People’s Republic of China would embrace the people’s encyclopedia of Wikipedia?

125 thoughts on “Why did China finally unblock Wikipedia?

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