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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.



( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 17th, 2007 08:52 am (UTC)
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.

That's the crux, and there are interesting parallels with the RIAA and MPAA I suspect. And console makers too, if you think about it.

As long as distribution is difficult or the process arcane, they don't give a fuck, because the vast majority won't either.

But once it goes mass market (napster and all its successors being the obvious examples), then the clamp down comes quickly.

On the other hand, stuff like binary newsgroups, IRC XDCC and warez FTPs (do they still exist?) don't get nearly as much attention because the threshold of knowledge to use them is higher. Thus most users can't be fucked.

The whole proxying thing through the Great Firewall will only become an issue for the PRC when there's something attractive enough out there for /many/ people to want to do it. I wonder what that might be.

Sep. 17th, 2007 09:02 am (UTC)
Cities in Flight
All true, but let's keep in mind that average people in China are, by and large:

  • fairly well educated;

  • decently well off, with utilities and appliances, vehicles and resources

  • neither hungry nor lacking for medical care (with a few million exceptions)

  • less religiously oppressed than they were 10 or 20 years ago

It's essentially a capitalist country in all but name. China wants the rampant consumerism of the West at the height (and the latter days) of the cold war, but it can ill afford the fallout (so to speak), nor can the world sustain one boom after another. The environment will become a huge issue for continental Asia (well, China and India) just because, as in SimEarth, the previous civilization to build those spindizzies has used up all the fossil fuels. ;-)

Sep. 17th, 2007 09:27 am (UTC)
Re: Cities in Flight

Which makes me think that environment "catastrophe" or a lack of resources (oil, coal, iron ore) are the two things that could really cause upheaval in PRC.

In fact, environmental catastrophe is probably a proxy for food issues since presumably climate probs would manifest in crop failings.

Sep. 17th, 2007 09:31 am (UTC)
Re: Cities in Flight
Oh, food and fresh water are definitely the first to go. Water will be felt first, just because a shortage encroaches on people's usage patterns (bathing, washing clothes) before even thirst does. Water use reflects not only available groundwater, but energy for purification.

Sep. 17th, 2007 08:16 pm (UTC)
Re: Cities in Flight
But remember - not everyone has the same experience as you have there ;)

Want me to have JT call you when he gets home?

*ducks and runs*
Sep. 19th, 2007 09:22 am (UTC)
Yes, indeed. And actually, I'd love to talk with JT about his experiences... have they turned him off ever taking you and Ro over there for a visit?

Sep. 19th, 2007 09:24 am (UTC)
Right now? Yes. The whole near death thing? So not cool! I was very serious about him not doing the Games next year.

He's going to need a month off to recover from this.
Sep. 20th, 2007 01:16 am (UTC)
A month off...
... is a very good idea.

Here's hoping time mellows the feeling you have about China right now.

BTW: Chuck Norris cylon(s) FTW.

Jan. 30th, 2008 06:19 am (UTC)
Thought and utterance
"Here's hoping time mellows the feeling you have about China right now."
That's it? I mean ... that's it?

"Wishing you well" ... "All the best" ... "Wish you were here".

Sir: I respectfully suggest you're capable of something more than 10c thoughts.
Sep. 17th, 2007 11:28 am (UTC)
Wb. Sorry I missed you IM. :-) I was asleep. I had logged in to try to catch lordmathem when he came home from work and fell sound asleep before he did. Oops.

Something interesting I learned that made me think of you and fits with this. We had a missionary at our church who is currently in Chine as an English teacher. He showed us several of the Chinese characters and how they broke down. In the symbol for creation is formed of the small symbols for dust, breath, and alive. Makes you think of Genesis 2:7. There are many more like that. It was very interesting. The man went on to explain that because of the pictograph nature of the Chinese language that people just learn the words, not what goes into making the words and miss these things. Thought you might find this interesting. :-)
Sep. 17th, 2007 12:11 pm (UTC)
Hello stranger! I had been wondering where you had gone. :)
Sep. 17th, 2007 04:25 pm (UTC)
Hey there to you, too!
It's good to be back.

Sep. 17th, 2007 04:34 pm (UTC)
It is good to see you back, Banazir!
It sounds like things have been fairly impassioned for you since you last posted. Where have you been?
How is school going? Has the semester progressed enough now to not be so hectic?
Again, good to see you back. :)
Sep. 19th, 2007 09:20 am (UTC)
Good to be back
Hey there! I've been in the great American swamp-land, details to follow. Things have been insanely busy, and are just about to get more busy, but such is life.

Sep. 18th, 2007 01:06 am (UTC)
Welcome back! It is good to see you on here again!

The battle for the minds of the people is coming to a head everywhere. The internet is the most revolutionary sharing device since the printing press, and the world is growing smaller regardless of the wishes of individual governments.

It's true that when you change your thoughts, you change your world. I believe that eventually, accuracy will prevail (I hesitate to use the word truth) and the majority of people will be able to make their own decisions based on factual information.
Sep. 20th, 2007 10:56 pm (UTC)
Welcome back, oh backdater of doom.
Jan. 30th, 2008 06:17 am (UTC)
You have so much energy!
How long have I been asking you about "Bayes" now, Bill? 3 years? 4? more? I'd say more.

A coupla kidz connected with a prof who groks Bayes ... the result is a clever new Web2.0 startup.

Alas, the people I talk to don't have 15 minutes over the course of 5 years. So I lose.

BTW: I routinely used programming services like Yahoo!Pipes. Your page here is almost impossible to load, it's so over-burdened. 8 screens high, nothing but tags.

You're a professor of Computer Science, no? Doesn't that have something to do with information and communications?

Alas ...
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )

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