Welcome to Source Notes, a Future Tense column about the internet’s information ecosystem.
It’s fair to say Beijing is on icy terms with Wikipedia. Back in 2015, Beijing deployed its Great Firewall to block the Chinese-language version of Wikipedia, and it began blocking all language versions of the site in 2019—a few months before the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests.
But according to some Wikipedia editors from mainland China, the vitriol did not end in 2019. On Sept. 13, the Wikimedia Foundation, the San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that supports Wikipedia, banned seven Wikipedia users and removed administrator powers from 12 users who were affiliated with a group known as Wikimedians of Mainland China. These WMC editors were demoted or banned after reports that they were seeking to control Wikipedia and skew its content toward a hard-line Chinese nationalist point of view.
In a statement following the bans, Maggie Dennis, the foundation’s vice present of community resilience and sustainability, said that the action came as the result of “infiltration concerns” and followed a yearlong investigation, calling the case “unprecedented in scope.” The foundation did not rule out the possibility that the problematic users were linked to the Chinese government but noted that this was not the focus of its investigation. “We needed to act based on credible information that some members (not all) of that group [WMC] have harassed, intimidated, and threatened other members of our community, including in some cases physically harming others, in order to secure their own power and subvert the collaborative nature of our projects,” Dennis told Slate in an email.
So far, media coverage of the bans has differed wildly between pro-Beijing and Western sources. According to the Global Times, a daily tabloid newspaper controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, the incident amounted to a “well-calculated suppression” of mainland Chinese editors. Meanwhile, the BBC noted in an article that the threat of capture by the CCP was a risk that “threatened the very foundations of Wikipedia.”
Although the WMC has said the claims against them are nothing but slander, it’s not unreasonable to suspect that the CCP cares a lot about Wikipedia. “Governments and politicians are increasingly interested in how facts are represented on Wikipedia because of the authority and popularity of the source around the world,” Heather Ford, an associate professor of digital and social media at the University of Technology Sydney, said in an email. “In my experience, it’s not only the government but also government supporters who understand the centrality of Wikipedia as an authority and attempt to influence its representations.”
The foundation noted that it was not able to disclose the specific evidence leading to the bans due to legal concerns and the potential risks to user safety. To better understand the circumstances leading up to this unprecedented action, I connected directly with several contributors to Chinese Wikipedia. It’s a group that includes editors based in mainland China, who describe themselves as “pro-Beijing” or at least “OK-with-Beijing.” The mainland Chinese editors doubted that any of their colleagues were directly affiliated with the CCP and instead claimed that their colleagues were patriots who believed that China’s perspective was not well-represented on the world stage. I also connected with users based in Taiwan and Hong Kong, many of whom are understandably reticent to speak with the press. Last year, China introduced its National Security Law in Hong Kong, which reduced Hong Kong’s judicial autonomy and made it far easier to punish demonstrators and dissidents. At least 154 people have been arrested under the NSL since its passage. The Hong Kong police allow citizens to report suspicious persons by email, SMS, or WeChat message, which critics say makes it easy to snitch on political opponents. At the same time, tensions between China and Taiwan are the worst they have been in 40 years, according to Taiwan’s defense minister, and Taiwanese citizens are concerned that upsetting Beijing could trigger retaliation against friends and family living on the mainland. (To protect their privacy and safety, Slate is not attributing any comments made by Chinese Wikipedia editors by name.)
It’s worth exploring why Chinese netizens care about Wikipedia when they already have Baidu Baike, a Chinese-language collaborative encyclopedia owned by the Chinese tech giant Baidu. Whereas Chinese Wikipedia has only about 1.2 million articles, Baidu Baike has more than 24.5 million entries. As a Chinese tech company, Baidu censors its content in accordance with government requirements. While Wikipedia is nonprofit, Baidu Baike is unashamedly commercial. It’s the kind of site that hawks opportunities for “content collaboration” with celebrities.
But according to Wikipedians, the biggest problem with Baidu Baike is that it publishes a lot of garbage. Unlike Wikipedia, Baidu Baike does not limit entries to notable topics or require that its information be supported by reliable sources. In some cases, Baidu’s commercialization of misinformation has led to tragedy. In 2016, the student Wei Zexi died after receiving an experimental treatment recommended by a Baidu health care page. Baidu recommended the alternative medicine because of payments to appear higher in search result rankings, even though chemotherapy and surgery were more effective treatments for the disease.
One former Chinese Wikipedia editor told me that over the past few years there has been a “defection” of volunteer editors leaving Baidu Baike to join Chinese Wikipedia because the contributors wanted the privilege of working on a higher-quality internet encyclopedia—one that also carries a great deal of international power. As Ford pointed out, Wikipedia’s facts are extracted by powerful platforms like Google as well as Apple’s and Amazon’s digital assistants.
But joining the cause of Chinese Wikipedia is not an easy endeavor. In order to access Wikipedia from mainland China, users must use a virtual private network or proxy connection to circumvent the country’s Great Firewall. These applications reroute the server and allow the user to visit sites that would normally be blocked for traffic coming from that person’s IP address. VPNs are relatively common in China with roughly 31 percent of the country’s internet users having tried them, according to a 2017 study. Chinese legal experts say that VPN technology itself has a murky legal status. It is clear, however, that the police can punish people for visiting web content that is perceived as going against the nation. In October of last year, Chinese police seized a person named Zhang Tao for using an anti-censorship browsing tool to “illegally visit the Wikipedia website for information.”
Once a mainland Chinese user is able to access Wikipedia using a VPN, there is still an additional step required before they can edit and make changes to the site. That’s because Wikipedia blocks the IP addresses of common VPN providers from editing the site in order to prevent vandalism. Consider this example: If a vandal is continuously causing trouble on Wikipedia, like the person who graffitied the site with swastikas earlier this year, an admin will block that user’s IP address to prevent further damage. But if VPNs were allowed without restriction, then that user could simply hop to a new IP address, jumping servers around the world while continuing to wreak havoc.
There are good reasons to generally prohibit VPN users from editing Wikipedia. Yet mainland Chinese Wikipedia editors told me that the policy presents a Catch-22: You can’t access Wikipedia without a VPN because of the Great Firewall, but you can’t edit Wikipedia due to the fact that you’re accessing the site by VPN. The workaround for this is called an IP block exemption. Essentially, a new Chinese Wikipedia user accessing the site from the mainland would need to email one of the site’s volunteer administrators and request that their account be cleared to edit with a VPN. (Remember how these exemption requests are reviewed by Chinese Wikipedia’s administrators; that becomes important later.)
The key point is that someone editing Wikipedia from mainland China is likely very motivated to do so. The question is what type of user would be most willing to take the risk and jump through all of those hoops: a pure free-knowledge enthusiast, a Chinese propagandist, or someone in between?
Skeptical Wikipedians believe that the groundswell of mainland Chinese editors reflects increased interest by the CCP. A 2019 paper published by Chinese academics Li-hao Gan and Bin-Ting Weng declared that “due to the influence by foreign media, Wikipedia entries have a large number of prejudiced words against the Chinese government.” The authors proposed a call to action: “China urgently needs to encourage and train Chinese netizens to become Wikipedia platform opinion leaders and administrators … [who] can adhere to socialist values and form some core editorial teams.”
That sounds a little like the Wikimedians of Mainland China. WMC describes itself as the only group representing the Wikimedia movement in mainland China. The group has held offline meetups in Beijing and Shenzhen and claimed, as of September, to have more than 300 members.
The Wikimedia Foundation has 134 user groups around the world who have gone through a formal application process and represent countries from Azerbaijan to Vietnam. But unlike those user groups, WMC has never been formally recognized by the foundation. Some sources said the U.S.-based foundation was not legally allowed to support WMC due to China’s strict nongovernmental organization law. Others noted that the WMC had not signed legal documents provided by the foundation agreeing to protect the anonymity of its members.
Although they were never an officially sanctioned user group, WMC members nonetheless went to battle to set the Hong Kong narrative on Wikipedia. One controversial Wikipedia page was the article about the Yuen Long attack. During the 2019–20 Hong Kong protests, an armed mob dressed in white began attacking civilians at a subway station with steel rods, injuring at least 45 people who were coming from pro-democracy protests. Hongkongese editors argued that the event should be called a “terrorist attack” intended to intimidate Hong Kong’s democracy activists. They included content about the slow police response, citing sources such as the pro-democracy paper Apple Daily, which was forced to close this year. Pro-Beijing editors argued that the Apple Daily was too biased, described the attackers as a “rural faction,” and advanced the position of Chinese-owned state media, which claimed the violence was stirred up by the pro-democracy side.
In this case, the edit wars had consequences beyond the net. As reported by the Hong Kong Free Press and Wikipedia’s community newspaper, the Signpost, users in the mainland China Wikipedia group threatened to report their Hong Kong peers to the city’s national security police hotline. “We should report those from the Hong Kong user group,” wrote one user on the WMC’s QQ messaging app. “Nice idea,” replied another. After reviewing the complaints, the foundation found that some Wikipedia users had been “physically harmed” due to conduct from WMC users. But when I asked one of the banned WMC admins about the allegations, they claimed that the Hong Kong Wikipedia editors were simply being “Karens.”
Some of the mainland Chinese editors who were banned or desysopped (Wikipedia jargon for having their administrator privileges removed) were administrators on Chinese Wikipedia, meaning that they were elected by their peers on Wikipedia to have special user rights, including the ability to block and unblock user accounts, and to lock certain pages from editing. A CCP hard-liner administrator could create a lot of problems—for instance, by fully immobilizing a pro-democracy Hong Kong editor’s account so that they are unable to add content about the 2019–20 protests.
Remember, too, that in order for any user to edit Wikipedia from mainland China, they must request an IP block exemption that is reviewed and approved by an administrator. But if administrator positions have been captured by the pro-Beijing camp, as has been alleged, then what type of users are they more likely to approve? Furthermore, what’s to prevent these admins from passing email addresses and other personal information about Wikipedians straight to the CCP?
A spokesperson for WMC was furious that Chinese Wikipedia administrators had been banned, writing, “The administrators who were desysopped and globally banned were elected fair and square through democratic processes. … As it turns out, those [Western] people who were cheerleading for democracy are the most anti-democratic of all. In their eyes, it’s only democratic when the vote goes their way; when a candidate they dislike won the election, they want to ‘stop the steal.’ ”
It’s worth acknowledging the bizarre reality that Donald Trump’s election discourse has become a talking point on Chinese Wikipedia. That said, the comparison is not appropriate. Rather than encouraging get-out-the-vote efforts, Wikipedia has a rule against canvassing for votes in order to influence the outcome of a discussion in a particular way, and the mainlanders allegedly broke these canvassing rules. A January 2020 admin election saw record turnout after members of the WMC decided that the candidate was not sufficiently pro-Beijing. It seems likely that the WMC encouraged its members to vote against a candidate who was critical of the CCP—rallying so-called meatpuppets, new accounts who did not actually contribute much to the encyclopedia other than voting “no” as directed.
The situation on Chinese Wikipedia calls to mind Karl Popper’s book The Open Society and Its Enemies. As a general rule, democratic elections are a desirable institutional mechanism to enact reforms and elect new leaders. But if the elected leaders adopt totalitarian tendencies—in this case, blocking new contributors or arranging for dissenters to be physically harmed—then the “democratic” system has shifted from openness to control.
After the foundation took action against the WMC users, the Taiwanese Wikipedia community issued a statement saying the decision was long overdue. “We need to rebuild an inclusive wiki that welcomes everyone from all places who wants to contribute to Chinese language Wikipedia in good faith,” the statement read. “Many people have felt unsafe for years, so restoring a shared sense of comfort is likely to take some time.”
Recent events suggest the Chinese government would prefer to limit Wikipedia’s international reach as much as possible. On Oct. 5, China was the lone objector in blocking the Wikimedia Foundation from joining the U.N.’s World Intellectual Property Organization. The Beijing delegate argued that Taiwanese Wikipedians were “carrying out political activities that may undermine China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” in violation of its “One China” policy.
According to one of the banned admins from the mainland China group, the members of WMC are planning to make a hard fork, creating a separate internet encyclopedia using Chinese Wikipedia as a base (something that is permitted under the site’s open license). The new Chinese encyclopedia is likely to be named after a reference to ancient Chinese literature, perhaps referencing Confucius or Sun Tzu, and would ideally provide higher-quality information than Baidu Baike.
When we spoke, the banned WMC admin was quite passionate that, even if the new project was not technically part of Wikipedia, the fork was still the most pragmatic way to advance Wikipedia’s mission of providing access to free knowledge to every person on the planet. It sounds nice, except that there’s a big catch: In order for the project to be greenlit by Chinese authorities, it will need to meet Chinese censorship standards. For instance, the new encyclopedia would focus largely on Chinese history pre-1945, before the roughly four-year civil war in China between the Communists and the Nationalists. Any more recent historical wiki pages would need to be “rewritten” to meet the CCP’s requirements.
A utilitarian might say that the ends justify the means—that is, that the goal of providing a free internet encyclopedia to more than 1 billion Chinese citizens justifies the creation of a special, censored version. The problem is that a defining principle of Wikipedia is that the project is not censored. If the project bends toward the will of government forces, then it loses its character as an encyclopedia that aims for neutrality. It becomes a propaganda tool, a source that rips out pages as the CCP demands.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.