December 7th, 2006


Potemkin Wikis and the Chinese Wikipedia

Well, I'm back.
Ephemeral: You know that Doctor Who S3 episode "Blink"? The one where people keep getting pulled back in time and cross paths with a stranded Doctor, and have to live their way back towards the latter days from which they were pulled?
Yeah... you get the idea.

This article on the Chinese Wikipedia in the International Herald Tribune caught my eye.
Just who was Mao Zedong?

According to the English-language version of Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia, he was a victorious military and political leader who founded China's modern Communist state. He was also a man many saw as "a mass murderer, holding his leadership accountable for the deaths of tens of millions of innocent Chinese."

Switch to Wikipedia in Chinese, and one discovers a very different man. There, Mao Zedong's reputation is unsullied by any mention of a death toll in the great purges of the 1950s and 1960s, or for what many historians call the greatest famine in human history.

Andrew Lih comments here on a blow-by-blow comparison done by New York Times correspondent Howard French. For that, make no mistake about it, is what this is: an information war. Fought not with bullets but with electrons, granting history not to the physical victors but those who operate the Wikipedia server that your browser goes to by default, the Chinese Wikipedia stakes a claim for the 99% of Chinese users who don't bother to tunnel out from behind the Great Firewall using a proxy.

On 10 Jun 2006, I brought up a photo of Tank Man in the heart of Beijing, courtesy of English Wikipedia and the timely assistance of taiji_jian and his desktop Linux box. What did this accomplish, other than the thrill of the illicit? Well, to hear tell of Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales' first attempts to get a foothold in China, it was really an all-or-nothing proposition. The whole (English) site, as some of you may know, is domain-level IP-blocked in China. The People's Republic of China (PRC) wanted Wales to voluntarily self-censor about 1% of Wikipedia's content, as Yahoo and Microsoft (and to a lesser, albeit more notorious extent, Google) already do. Wales said "nothing doing", and so the status quo of the Golden Shield (jing1 dun1, the PRC's propagandistic euphemism for Internet censorship) stayed in place. Replace "Shield" with "Curtain" and you get the idea.

Fast-forward ahead a few months: there is now a growing awareness of the dichotomy between the Chinese and English Wikipedias. Is it censorship? A Potemkin village kind of syndrome? Yes and yes, but only for that pesky 1%. You see, there are just a few articles, such as those concerning dissidents such as Wang Dan and the Tiananmen Square Massacre, that are touchy for the PRC. 1% of the content for 1% of the readership - the proxy users - doesn't pose an issue. The PRC government knows that there are people who tunnel out of curiosity or just to buck the trends. They know that there are closet dissidents who tunnel, and you can be sure that the subversives they view as more dangerous than the casual college student wanting a taste of free information are surveilled. If, however, the readership expanded to, say, 10%, it might be a problem. You see, the PRC pulls down news articles about every would-be coup - every strike against a state-run facility, from an aircraft factory to a provincial university. The government knows that the information has been seen by that 1% already; it doesn't mind that it circulates within the infosphere of people who have self-selected out of the complacent infoproletariat. It is what happens to the 99% that the PRC government cares about, because when the information that it is possible to overthrow the state becomes common, then the state will be overthrown.

Napoleon Bonaparte said: "The art of the police is not to see what it is useless that it should see." That, too, is the art of the modern Chinese internet user... for the moment. Happily, we are reminded that Albert Einstein said: "Politics is for the moment; an equation is for eternity." The equation we are looking at is perhaps a limit theorem, counting the days to a convergence that cannot be willed, or edited, away.