Wikipedia China Becomes Front Line for Views on Language and Culture
By GRACE TSOI
HONG KONG — 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, 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 mainland China and Taiwan, while the majority in Hong Kong speak Cantonese. But mainland China uses simplified characters, while Taiwan and Hong Kong use traditional script.
That has led to articles on otherwise innocuous topics becoming flash points, and has caused controversial entries to be restricted.
The entry on the 1989 military crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, for example, has been subject to “edit wars” since the site was created. Editors have argued over whether it constituted a “massacre,” whether the People’s Liberation Army suppressed the protests “with force,” or if the Beijing authorities had been “hiding the truth.”
Despite Chinese sensitivity on the topic, Wikipedia has not taken the page down 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, a representative of Wikimedia Hong Kong, a local chapter of the Wikimedia Foundation. Mr. Chan said, however, that some articles on the Chinese Wikipedia cannot be accessed because the “Great Firewall” — the hugely effective censorship tool developed by the Chinese authorities — filtered “sensitive words.”
Stephen Wong, a contributor from Hong Kong who has been active on Chinese Wikipedia since 2009, said users across the region have experienced “some form of cultural shock,” which triggers arguments.
“Users from different areas have received different education, and have been influenced by different political ideologies,” Mr. Wong 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, said in an e-mail.
“The common perception is that arguments are frequent on Wikipedia, and indeed there are active discussions and disagreements about content, as would be expected in such an enormous and complex information ecosystem,” Mr. Roth said.
In April, some users were embroiled in heated arguments over an entry about the encirclement campaigns of the Nationalist government headed by Chiang Kai-shek in the 1930s to purge the Communists. On the Chinese Wikipedia, the entry is titled “The Chinese Community’s Anti-Siege Wars,” which a Taiwanese user criticized as biased toward mainland 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,” wrote a Taiwanese contributor named DEMONBANE, who went on to suggest the use of “siege wars” as a more neutral title. Another user, named Sakamotosan, said the original name should be kept, as neutrality does not exist in history. For the time being, the original title remains.
Another recurring topic for debates is the nationality of citizens of Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997, and a new round of emotional discussions was spurred in August. The issue of Hong Kong citizens’ nationality is complicated by the fact that they are eligible for Hong Kong passports, which grant holders visa-free access to a large number of countries, in sharp contrast with the highly 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 — as some users reasoned, “Hong Kong is not a country, so the nationality China (Hong Kong) does not exist.”
That upset Hong Kong contributors. “Deciding on one’s nationality is not something Wikipedia editors should do,” a Hong Kong commenter going by the name Oneam said. “Editors cannot assume all people have a certain nationality based on the nationality law, especially some people enjoy dual citizenship.”
When Chinese Wikipedia was first set up in 2002, there were two versions — one with simplified Chinese characters and one with traditional characters. About 10 years ago, the two sites were merged. However, early editors soon found the new site was mired in conflict triggered by linguistic differences.
Chinese Wikipedia attempted to resolve the conflict by introducing language conversion software in 2004 — the only instance in which it is used on a Wikipedia site.
Today, the site has five settings: simplified Chinese for mainland 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,” Mr. Roth said.
Underscoring the importance of Chinese Wikipedia, Wikimania, the annual international conference attended by hundreds of Wikipedia users, was held in Hong Kong in mid-August.
Liao Hanteng, a Taiwanese researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute, said that most Internet forums have a parochial focus, but that Chinese Wikipedia offers rare opportunities for all Chinese-speaking people 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.”
He pointed out that the flexible language options put all countries on an equal footing. For example, this year Macau was given its own setting, despite having a population of only 500,000.
“There was more bickering in the early days, but the discussion matured at a quick pace after 2009,” said Wikimedia Taiwan’s chairman, Ted Chien Hsiang-tai, 39, who joined the online encyclopedia 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.”
Wikipedia contributors also must comply with the “no original research” principle, which means that they cannot write any individual opinions into the online encyclopedia.
All of 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, a 17-year-old 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.”
Mr. 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, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, attributed the maturation to the fact that more users are 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,” Mr. Mao said. “If there are disagreements over management and editing, people can engage in discussion based on these principles. Such atmosphere has been built up in the Chinese Wikipedia community gradually.”