The Washington Post today features a fascinating account of citizens building the Chinese Wikipedia and why the government chooses to censor. The trouble centers naturally around Tiananmen Square, but really it's about the trouble that top-down governments have with the grass-roots collaboration that Wikipedia offers. A few excerpts:
The Communist Party polices these emerging Internet communities with censors and undercover agents, and manages a Web site that it said received nearly a quarter-million anonymous tips about "harmful information" online last year. But the methods the party uses to control speech and behavior in the real world have proved less effective in cyberspace, where people get away with more, and where the government is often a step behind.
When authorities catch up, citizens often have already weakened the party's grip on public life and succeeded in expanding civil society. They have organized charity drives for rural schoolchildren and mobilized students for anti-Japanese protest marches. And they learned to work together to write an encyclopedia.
At start, the Chinese Wikipedia community was rife with conflict - over the proper name for the war between China and Japan in 1937, over how to resolve disputes. The principles of Wikipedia - "objectivity in content, equality among users, the importance of consensus" - were frankly alien to most Chinese users. Slowly, the community worked out its processes, and state-run media promoted the site.
Then, on the 15th anniversary of Tianaman, authorities blocked the site. Nineteen days later it was unblocked.
Slowly, a community was consolidating outside the party's purview, one that was learning to settle its own disputes, that crossed borders and tolerated those who contradicted the party's views, and that began organizing get-togethers in the real world as well as cyberspace.
It must have been disturbing to some in the party, which has long sought to dominate all organized social activity in China. In September 2004, the government blocked access to Wikipedia again.
It is still blocked today, but there is some hope:
The number of people using the Chinese Wikipedia site has dropped, but devoted users are finding ways to access it. The community now boasts 45,000 registered users, most from the mainland. Among the site's 56,000 entries is one that explains how to get around the government's firewall.