After years spent tussling with Wikipedia over issues of internet censorship, China’s government has announced its long-delayed plans to digitize its state-sponsored Chinese Encyclopedia. The print Chinese Encyclopedia has existed since the late 1970s, and the Chinese State Council, the ruling Communist Party’s cabinet, first approved an online edition in 2011. But concerns about the relevance of the encyclopedia in a digital environment reportedly delayed implementation of the digitization project. In April, though, things once again got moving. The Chinese State Council has announced that it will hire more than 20,000 scholars to create the encyclopedia.
Set to go live in 2018, the Chinese government’s effort will comprise more than 300,000 entries authored by Chinese academics and researchers spanning more than 100 different disciplines.
The Chinese Encyclopedia digitization project is a thinly veiled attempt to displace Wikipedia as a source of information for the more than 720 million Chinese netizens whose online activities are already limited by the so-called Great Firewall of China. The state has cyclically banned and reinstated Wikipedia access since 2004, usually in response to tetchy public-relations moments like anniversaries of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Private Chinese internet companies have arisen to fill this inconsistent informational void, but offer dramatically less content than Wikipedia itself.
At an April 12 press conference, Yang Muzhi, the Chinese Encyclopedia’s editor-in-chief, called on the Chinese government to “guide and lead the public and society.”* That echoes comments he made in 2016. According to the South China Morning Post:
In an article in a mainland newspaper at the end of last year, Yang listed Wikipedia as a competitor which required “extra attention”.
“The readers regarded it to be authoritative, accurate, and it branded itself as a ‘free encyclopaedia that anyone can edit’, which is quite bewitching,” he wrote. “But we have the biggest, most high-quality author team in the world … our goal is not to catch up, but overtake.”
Meanwhile, Turkey blocked Wikipedia over the weekend. Citing state-sponsored obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights, the think tank Freedom House classified Turkey and 20 other nations (including China) as “not free” in its 2016 Freedom on the Net report. And as a 2014 Human Rights Watch report described:
Turkish authorities have blocked tens of thousands of websites under the country’s draconian Internet Law 5651 over the last few years. The exact number remains unclear since the judicial and administrative procedures for Internet blocking are not transparent. In February, the government passed amendments to the law that expand censorship powers, enabling authorities to block access to web pages within hours, based on a mere allegation that a posting violates private life, without a prior court order.
China, Turkey, and other similarly restrictive regimes’ designs for ever-greater control over Internet access and content may not pay dividends, however. In April, Yang dubbed the Chinese Encyclopedia project a “Great Wall of culture” designed to “guide and lead the public and society” amid what the South China Morning Post described as mounting “international pressure.” However unwitting, the comparison is telling. Although its impregnable legend lives on through wildly ahistorical Hollywood depictions, the actual, brick-and-mortar Great Wall of China was ultimately a poor bulwark against the “international pressure” of its day—threat of foreign invasion. In 1629, the wall was breached by forces hailing from what is today Manchuria, plunging China into a heightened state of civil war that eventually resulted in the overthrow of the Ming Dynasty leaders who had built it.
The good news is that stopgap measures like China’s digitized encyclopedia look less like walls and more like speedbumps on the road toward a more open Internet. Although censorship has increased under the current Chinese President, Xi Jinping, his administration’s January crackdowns on unauthorized internet connections, virtual private networks, and other services to circumvent the Great Firewall are a sign that such shortcuts are working—and increasingly viewed as a threat to Communist Party rule. Digitizing the encyclopedia is also a nod to the increasingly open-access nature of information. “Our goal is not to catch up” to other forms of online content, Yang wrote of the project in a mainland newspaper last year, “but overtake.”
The move may also further mobilize domestic critics of state censorship, whose calls for greater Internet freedom have grown louder in recent months. In March, delegates to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a national political advisory board, argued that “broad-brush censorship” by the Chinese government “is hobbling economic growth, breakthroughs in science, technology and innovation, the promotion of Chinese art and culture,” and creating informational divides between young Chinese citizens who reside on the mainland and those who live in the autonomous and less restrictive Hong Kong.
“It is not normal when quite a number of researchers have to purchase software that helps them bypass the country’s firewalls in order to complete their scientific research,” Luo Fuhe, executive vice-chairman of the China Association for Promoting Democracy and a vice-chairman of the CPPCC, reportedly told journalists at the conference.
Even so, the CPPCC’s recommendations were either censored or went unreported by mainland Chinese media, which is heavily vetted by the government.
*Update, May 2, 2017: This blog post was updated to include the fact that Yang Muzhi is the editor-in-chief of the Chinese Encyclopedia.