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.


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?

  1. I noticed the way you look at wikipedia is different from the way I look at it.

    You seem to write with the approach that Wikipedia will teach Chinese users something. I think this is true for fact based articles eg. Physics, biology subjects.

    On the normative articles, I seem to think Chinese netcitizens will contribute to Wikipedia erasing Wikipedia’s biasness as the primary reason for removing the block.

    They realized that unless they unleash their Knowledge Army, Wikipedia will be monopolized by Western educated scholars and Falun Gong practitioners making edits.

    For example, despite China being a Communist country, there was no indication in Wikipedia’s entry on PRC that it is a democracy. I mean, Communism is Democracy, unless you are Western educated then you never learnt that. You learn that Communism is the opposite of Democracy. I was the one who wrote about elections being held in China. I was the one who wrote about the popularity of Chinese leaders in Hong Kong. Without people like me, the article about PRC would still have reflected the cold war brainwashed mentality of Western scholars.

    Also, I disagree with you that Wikipedia has a neutral point of view at its core. The trick to getting your “bias” viewpoints printed on wikipedia is to write it in a soft dimissive manner. Acknowledge the fact, but end the sentence with a doubt or use quotations. Another trick is to quote your “bias” viewpoints from biased sources. This trick seemed very popular with propagandist academics as well and is practised in conventional media.

  2. I always thought that it was Wikipedia’s NPOV core that the authorities feared, because it allows for the reader to come to his own conclusions based on all the evidence available, rather than the conclusion the authorities would like the reader to come to based on the selective evidence they provide.

  3. I did a talk about why China was blocking wikipedia at wikimania, and the main purpose is not to filter out information or mold public opinion. The blocks are technically easy to circumvent, and no one in China takes what they read first hand anyway. It’s not a “wall” so much as a “speed bump” but that’s enough to prevent someone who is uncommited from crossing it.

    IMHO, the worry was that Wikipedia would be the basis for something like the color revolutions. I suspect that ths is much less of a worry now because:

    1) most of the color revolutions have fizzled

    2) the government has plenty of tools to deal with mass mobilization, and

    3) the best way of keeping wikipedia from becoming a hotbed of anti-government activity is to make sure that pro-government people are actively involved in it. This becomes difficult when you are blocking it, and effectively keeping your own supporters from participating in the project. Also there is the large majority of people who just don’t care about politics, and by letting those people participate, one greatly dilutes the effect of anti-government people.

    The other thing that I’ve pointed out is that Chinese Wikipedia greatly aids in the goal of national unification. To get things to the point where people from the Mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwan and the dozens of subgroups within it can even agree on how to describe the disagreements is not a small matter.

    One thing that would be cool is if someone did a “Harper’s annotation” of the article on China or the Communist Party or the Cultural Revolution and then marked up all of the huge number of compromises it took to create that article.

    The other thing is that I do hope that people involved in Wikipedia continue to try to make contact with the people involved in the Ministry of Information Industry, and that some communication channel can be set up.


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

    In fact you are right: there is a report, I think it is from the OpenNetInitiative, although I’m not completely sure, about the Chinese firewall that compares the blocking of websites between 2002 and 2005. In fact, the number of censored websites has decreased in this period of time, which does not mean that web censorship itself has decreased; censorship used to be paranoid in the beginning, with websites about tourism in Tibet that were being blocked for instance. Nowadays the blocking is more precise and efficient.

    If you want the precise reference I can find it somewhere.


  5. wesley,
    why read about tank man if you can watch it right here?

    Fast forward to to 5:57 time, proving once again the the Chinese governmen official version of the story has been the most consistent amongst the rest. I translate here in case you don’t understand Chinese:

    Democracy Activist said:
    (Movie clip time:5:57)
    Many people say that at Tiananmen square about 2,000 were shot or perhaps several hundred were
    shot. On the square were tanks that crushed people and students etc. etc.
    I would like to stress that I did not witness this a bit.I don’t know where the other people witness this.
    I was still there until 6:30, and I did not witness this.
    I kept thinking: Is it necessary for us to use lies to fight the lies of our enemy?
    Are the facts itself not strong enough? (clenches his fist)
    If we use lies to attack our enemies that use lies, that will only satisfy our moment of anger.
    But this is very dangerous because when your lies are exposed then from then on, you will have no power to defeat your enemy.

  6. To celebrate the unblocking of the Chinese wikipedia, I’ve just started a stub on the Administrative Procedures Law of the People’s Republic of China.

    I hope someone will find it useful, and that people will add to the article and increase popular knowledge and understanding of this and various other laws.

  7. Kevin:
    “I always thought that it was Wikipedia’s NPOV core that the authorities feared,”

    Wikipedia is neutral is a myth. I remember about 10 years ago, it was a widespread belief that the internet cannot be censored. Today everybody realizes how silly they once were to think that it cannot be censored.

    How can wikipedia be neutral when even the facts that we believe today is clouded with biased viewpoints? Like I said, all you need to do to insert biased viewpoints into wikipedia is to quote from biased sources. And acknowledge the other side of the argument but write it in a dismissive manner by proper choice of words. That way your articles will appear balanced, but you have phrased it in a way to influence the judgement of your reader.

  8. Wikipedia does indeed have the “neutral point of view” at its core – it’s the only non-negotiable part of the community, as Jimmy Wales always points out.

    You may debate whether it succeeds or not, but the argument you put forth above may happen with one person editing the article, but as many more contribute and provide a check and balance against that tendency that effect is effectively lessened.

  9. This is all very interesting, but the language spoken and written in China is Chinese. Wikipedia is no longer blocked in English – or Spanish, Portuguese or Swahili. But the Chinese-language Wikipedia is still just as blocked as it ever was.

  10. Yellowdog – No you are incorrect, all languages under the wikipedia.org domain is unblocked, including zh.wikipedia.org. At least for now.

  11. I think its a good thing if it is still blocked in Chinese. This means that only educated Chinese who knows English can access it. For the uneducated ones, they can always go for baidu. Wikipedia is like the World Cup, for the big guys with strong critical thinking skills who understand the tricks people employ to conduct mind controls. Those without critical thinking skills who read Wikipedia will be easily brainwashed.

    I think the Chinese government should consider blocking the Chinese version for now.

  12. @ mahathir_fan:

    You are clearly an expert on the tricks people employ to conduct mind controls [sic].

    I have two suggestions:

    1. Run for election.

    2. Examine the data regarding casualties surrounding the square, rather than merely those that took place in it.

    Best regards

  13. all wikipedia have been blocked again, include https and proxy since Nov.16th. I’m a Chinese user, I’m unhappy.

  14. The government shut down Wikipedia again. Is it any surprise?

    @ mahathir_fan:
    I suspect Wikipedia was opened up because the Chinese government was tired of Taiwanese and HK types writing the material. At that rate, the honest truth about the PRC government would be written, something which the Chinese government has never allowed.

    I’m not sure why you have such brazen contempt for “normal” Chinese, and think that only the Chinese language wikipedia should be blocked (November 16th, 2006 19:45, above), so that only the super-educated that can read foreign languages can access the truth.

    After the total failure of the Chinese government to institute local democracy, as shown again recently, and the flagrant abuse of the truth and the media prevalent in China, and after the arrest of so many activists asking for no more than the freedom to speak or read what they want–
    Seriously, how can anyone actually believe that China would continue to allow completely free access to something like Wikipedia in Chinese?

    The only reason the government can maintain any control of the population, however brutal, is through control of the media; the army can’t shoot everyone.

    You can’t even talk about Taiwan honestly, at all. The PRC is ambivalent of talking about the anti-Chen Corruption campaign, for fear of comparisons to what goes on in China.


    It’s just a pipe dream.

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  17. Craig,

    Let me first start by saying that freedom of speech is forfeited if you try to use it to overthrow the government. See the GREAT WIKIPEDIA entry on Gitlow vs. New York. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gitlow

    Gitlow was a Socilist who printed articles to encourage people to overthrow the US government by a revolution. He was later imprisoned. In this case, Gitlow is an example of the huge number of “human rights” prisoners in China who are being imprisoned for treason (like Gitlow). See the US supreme court argument on why Gitlow is not protected by freedom of the press or speech. After that, you should have a better understanding of why those freedom fighters are imprisoned in China despite Article 35 of the PRC constitution. This is of course the Chinese government point of view that they are counter revolutionary therefore freedoms are forfeited, just like in the case of Gitlow vs. Newyork.

    I understand your frustation. Let me tell you, my comments on ChinaDaily.com.cn has the highest proportional rate of being removed among the various websites that I post comments on. Despite that most of what I write about is pro-Communist party stuff.

    You are only thinking of politics, but I tell you it encompasses a whole range of things.

    Because of this, you cannot accuse them of censoring for the purpose of wanting to remain in power.

    Take for example a recent news on Chinadaily where I said that the reason why most shanghai people didn’t accept free hugs is because the person who gave those free hugs is a young woman along Nanjing Road in Shanghai. Nanjing Road has lots of prostitutes.

    Guess what? My comment was removed from ChinaDaily. There is nothing political about what I wrote.

    So now back to wikipedia. It would be a bit naive to think that they blocked wikipeida squarely for political reasons. They censor for a host of reasons.

  18. there is nothing more despicable than ignorance toward innovation and plurality of opinions in governants and nothing more powerful than the fear that comes from that ignorance, ruling people’s lives … for such a governement and its people, there will hardly be any future …
    Wiki is no longer accessible from this part of the world, and I doubt it will ever be…

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  20. I am so sad that en.wikipedia.org can’t brose in China agina
    so sad amI
    So sad……………………………………

  21. I’m able to get it, I just can’t get good speeds! What’s the deal with this filtering it’s totally frustrating.

    I’ve tried everything, adding two providers even. They have come out and checked my equipment twice and inform me it’s my router. That’s not it, it works fine at 100Mb. I called my VPN service http://www.strongvpn.com and with or without their connection it’s slow.

    At least connected I’ve bypassed the firewall. I’m curious to know what speeds others are getting?

    I’m in Shenzhen on China Telecom.

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  23. It is a known fact that China blocked its people’s access to wikipedia. however, i checked the chinese page, they have total of 29 moderators that are in China! 6 from beijing, 6 from guangzhou, 6 from shanghai, etc. There are more moderators from China than from any other parts of the world. however, if the chinese are blocked from getting on here, how can those Chinese moderators still have time and resources to moderate the chinese wikipedia? isn’t that odd?

    you may have heard about [[Shi Tao]], the chinese government put him in jail for 10 years because the government was able to find his location thru a single IP address which was reported by yahoo. those 29 moderators’ are listed publicly on the chinese page. So it is quite obvious that the chinese government must have those 29 mainland chinese moderators’ personal informaiton. I highly suspect that most of the chinese mainland moderators are spies sent by the Chinese communists. It is a banned web site, what kind of people are willing to edit a web site that is banned by his or her own government especially in china?!

    I can probably safely say that there are more people using the chinese version from Hong Kong and Taiwan than people from [[mainland China]]. however, [[Hongkong]] only has 13, [[Taiwan]] has 17. isn’t that odd? further, during my time on that site, as far as I know, no moderator from hong kong banned or deleted my contributions, and there are 13 of them. if I really did something wrong, shouldn’t they also be able to ban or delete? and who can gurantee that those moderators who are listed under other country names are not really from mainland china?

    Another thing, it is forbidden to gather without government permit in China. however, that chinese site recently even had two meetings in capital – [[Beijing]] and in city of guangzhou. there are constant reports about police harassing and spying on people who secretly gathered in churches which are not approved by the government, etc. so there is no way that the government doesn’t spy on those wikipedia meetings. It is just shocking to see those moderators so “bravely” advertising on the public page. and when I posted a question about my doubt, it was immediatly deleted as usual. those comment pages were also put into protection.

    i am not insance or crazy. It is also a known fact that china has spies in taiwan. it seems to me that the moderator from taiwan jasonzhoucn is also very “communistly” suspicious. one time, i added to only two extra links to an article of the chinese golden shield project, he immediatly deleted them without a reason. he also deleted the extra information that i have added for some of the articles.

    and the same chinese administrators are now writing the article about “Chinese wikipedia” on the English version site. so how realiable is the wikipedia? now you know.

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  28. What you need to understand is that all proxies are created equal using the exact same technology. None is better than any other and the web filters know how to detect them now. So they don’t’ work anymore.

  29. ya..it is a good idea by china governament. only literate people can access this wikipedia.uneducated people can”t access. i think china govt.starts a new china language wikipedia.

  30. it’s sad that wikipedia is not blocked in China, as wikipedia is loaded with disinformation, and slander about China (and other resisters of imperialism). western multinational corporations must have paid thousands of shills to refer to China, and taiwan as two separate countries, on all its articles. jimmy wales is dodgy, he is a right wing extremist. China is better off making its own interenet as the dprk, myanmar, and cuba have all done. there is no reason on earth why China should subject itself to western corporate propaganda, and if it does, then it will pay a price for it later, after their citizens become brain washed, and try to start some Libyan style coup. it;’s fine if a western website wants to put information on hard sciences, but if they want to use it to fulfil their political agendas (specifically sepratist movements) then that is when China should block the website. wikipedia would be great, if anyone could write articles. the problem is, wikipedia is a bureaucracy. there is no way, any ordinary people can compete with the army of full time shills on the payroll of the richest multinational corporations. i maybe can go online an hour a day at the most, whereas you have corporate shills online 24-7 pushing the imperialist, capitalist view point. basically, the primary thing we can find on wikipedia is the rich man’s point of view. thank god that China has its own online encyclopedia called baike. i hope that China comes up with its own wikipedia to reduce dependency on wikipedia. the only problem is, there is no way China has that much money to pay shills like western multinational corporations. thats the problem with information wars. the one with the most money usually wins, and western governments will spend like no tomorow, knowing they are spending other peoples money.

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