Wikipedia China: frontline for regional tolerance

A Wikipedia editor from Shanghai was initially infuriated when he came across terms like ‘Taiwan’ and the ‘Republic of China’ on the Web site, but now says he understands how people in Taiwan think, and has become much more tolerant

By Grace Tsoi  /  NY Times News Service, HONG KONG

Wed, Oct 30, 2013 - Page 9

The Chinese-language version of Wikipedia has become more than an online encyclopedia: It is a battlefield for editors from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong in a region charged with political, ideological and cultural differences.

Wikipedia editors, who are all volunteers, present opposing views on politics, history and traditional Chinese culture — in essence, different versions of China. Compounding the issue are language differences. Mandarin is the official language in China and Taiwan, while the majority in Hong Kong speak Cantonese. However, Taiwan and Hong Kong use traditional script, while China uses simplified characters.

That has led to articles on otherwise innocuous topics becoming points of contention and has caused controversial entries to be restricted.

For example, the entry on the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing has been subject to “editing wars” since the site was created. Editors have argued over whether it constituted a “massacre,” whether the Chinese People’s Liberation Army suppressed the protests “with force” and if the Beijing authorities had been “hiding the truth.”

Despite Chinese sensitivity on the topic, Wikipedia has not deleted the page or done anything to censor it, the organization said.

“Wikipedia does not comply with the Chinese government’s self-censorship policy. Absolutely not,” said Tango Chan (陳子恩), a representative of Wikimedia Hong Kong, a local chapter of the Wikimedia Foundation.

However, he said that some articles on the Chinese-language Wikipedia site could not be reached because the “Great Firewall” — the censorship tool developed by the Chinese authorities — filtered “sensitive words.”

Stephen Wong, a contributor from Hong Kong who has been active on the site since 2009, said users across the region had experienced “some form of cultural shock,” which set off arguments.

“Users from different areas have received different education and have been influenced by different political ideologies,” he said. “We discovered that the things we learned as a kid were totally different from each other.”

No matter the language, disputes are part of the nature of Wikipedia, Matthew Roth, the global communications manager of the Wikimedia Foundation, wrote in an e-mail.

In April, some users were embroiled in heated arguments over an entry about the encirclement campaigns of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government led by Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) in the 1930s to purge the communists. In the Chinese-language Wikipedia, the entry is titled “The Chinese Community’s Anti-Siege Wars,” which a Taiwanese user said was biased toward China.

“From the viewpoint of Taiwan, the militant actions against the Nationalist government were equal to riots. If Chinese Wikipedia is accommodating to all stances, it should not only follow that of mainland China,” a contributor using the handle Demonbane wrote, suggesting that “siege wars” was a more neutral term. Another user, identified as Sakamotosan, said the original name should be kept, as neutrality did not exist in history. For now, the original title remains.

Another recurring topic of debate is the nationality of citizens of Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997. A new round of emotional discussions came up in August. The issue of Hong Kongers’ nationality is complicated by their eligibility for Hong Kong passports, which grant holders visa-free access to a large number of countries, in sharp contrast with the restrictive Chinese passports.

In one recent squabble, some users insisted on using the flag of the People’s Republic of China to depict the nationality of people from Hong Kong because they reasoned that: “Hong Kong is not a country, so the nationality China (Hong Kong) does not exist,” which upset contributors from Hong Kong.

“Deciding on one’s nationality is not something Wikipedia editors should do,” a commentator going by the name Oneam said. “Editors cannot assume all people have a certain nationality based on the nationality law, especially as some people enjoy dual citizenship.”

When the Chinese-language Wikipedia site was introduced in 2002, there were two versions — one with simplified Chinese characters and one with traditional script. About 10 years ago, the two sites were merged. However, early editors soon found that the new site was mired in conflicts posed by linguistic differences.

The Chinese Wikipedia tried to resolve the issue by introducing language conversion software in 2004 — the only instance in which it is used on a Wikipedia page.

Today, the site has five settings: simplified Chinese for China, orthodox Chinese for Taiwan, traditional Chinese for Hong Kong, traditional Chinese for Macau and simplified Chinese for Singapore and Malaysia.

“This software feature could also be seen as an embodiment of Wikipedia’s neutrality principle, in that it brings together editors from different political systems and enables productive discussion and collaboration between them,” Roth said.

Underscoring the importance of the Chinese Wikipedia site, Wikimania, the annual international conference attended by hundreds of Wikipedia users, was held in Hong Kong in mid-August.

Liao Han-teng (廖漢騰), a Taiwanese researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, said that most Internet forums had a parochial focus, but that Chinese-language Wikipedia offered rare opportunities for those fluent in Chinese to engage in discussion.

“There is some form of integration across the region,” he said. “But that does not mean that mainland China assimilates Taiwan or Hong Kong. Every area stands on the same ground.”

“There was more bickering in the early days, but the discussion matured at a quick pace after 2009,” said Wikimedia Taiwan chairman Chien Hsiang-tai (簡翔泰), 39, who joined the organization eight years ago. “A new generation of editors became active on Chinese Wikipedia in 2009 and they brought new thoughts, too. They were less influenced by political ideologies, so they have better judgments than us.”

Contributors must also comply with the site’s “no original research” principle, which means they cannot include individual opinions in entries.

All the rules and changes have made a difference, users say.

“When I first joined the Chinese Wikipedia, I was an ‘angry youth,’” said Wilson Ye, 17, a Wikipedia editor from Shanghai who started writing entries four years ago. “I was furious when I came across terms like ‘Taiwan’ and the ‘Republic of China,’ but after more interactions, I understand how people in Taiwan think and I become much more tolerant.”

Ye was recently promoted to administrator, which means that he has the authority to lock pages and block users.

“In real life, I have my own political stance, but I will not bring this into Wikipedia,” he said.

Isaac Mao (毛向輝), a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, attributed the maturation to more users learning what Wikipedia is all about.

“It all came back to the ‘five principles’ of Wikipedia, including authenticity, accuracy, neutral point of view and the use of references,” Mao said. “If there are disagreements over management and editing, people can engage in discussion based on these principles. Such [an] atmosphere has been built up in the Chinese Wikipedia community gradually.”