How China’s “Great Wall of Culture” could wreck Wikipedia’s utopian project

This weekend it emerged that China plans to take on Wikipedia with its own vast online resource, employing tens of thousands of scholars to compile an internet version of the Chinese Encyclopedia.  

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According to the South China Morning Post, the project’s editor-in-chief Yang Muzhi said the compendium is “not a book, but a Great Wall of Culture”. Whether or not the imagery of a walled-in culture is intentional, the project is the latest example of national interests butting against the utopian promise of a globally accessible, politically neutral library.

In a thematically related event this week, Turkey blocked Wikipedia as part of a larger crackdown on dissidents. According to the Hurriyet Daily News, the ban came from an Ankara court after the site refused to remove two English-language pieces claiming Turkey directed support to jihadists in Syria. In response, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales tweeted: “Access to information is a fundamental human right. Turkish people, I will always stand with you to fight for this right.” One can imagine Erdoğan turning around and saying, “yes, but whose information should people have access to?”

There’s a clash in both cases between the free-to-edit ethos of Wikipedia, and the desires of authoritarian governments to control the information to which its citizens have access. In China, Wikipedia exists but is susceptible to frequent cutouts and page filtering. Seemingly neutral pages on technology and science are often accessible, but entries on political figures or events are blocked outright. and are user-generated online encyclopedias, but are known for heavy policing of government regulations. Both also pale in comparison to the sheer number of English Wikipedia articles.

The new take on the Chinese Encyclopedia is therefore an attempt to create an expansive, but authoritative, resource that can compete in scope with Wikipedia. “We have the biggest, most high-quality author team in the world,” said Yang. “Our goal is not to catch up, but overtake.” The emphasis is on scholar-authored pages, with 20,000 academics from universities and research institutes being brought in to write articles on more than 100 subjects.

It isn’t certain exactly how much control the Chinese government will have over the encyclopedia, but – given that it’s a national project – expect it to be a lot. One of the contributing historians, Professor Huang Annian, told the South China Morning Post that the project needs to “adapt to the development trend in the 21st century” and “emphasise the globalisation of the world economy, political democracy, and cultural diversity”. It’s a sign that some of those writing the encyclopedia may lean towards more openness around traditionally sensitive topics. However, given China’s extremely restrictive attitude to the internet, it’s unlikely the Chinese Encyclopedia will touch on subjects that show authorities in a negative light.

Not allowing user-generated articles, at least from the outset, puts the onus on Chinese research institutions – also subject to strict government control – to do the heavy-lifting. Yang previously named Wikipedia as a competitor that requires “extra attention”, but the comparison is somewhat misleading when you have state institutions on the one hand, and an army of citizen volunteers and moderators on the other. Wikipedia is trusted in part because of its crowd-wisdom mentality, seemingly detached from national political interests – although the whole endeavour is arguably in the political interest of democratic governments. Still, it’s a compliment to the power of Wikipedia that state-level actors see the need to either block it or try to recreate it.

Language differences may aid the Chinese Encyclopedia’s ambition, with the smaller Chinese version of Wikipedia a much more realistic target than its English equivalent, but the project ultimately raises questions about the limits of state control for internet encyclopedias. Can a country create an open internet resource that hinges on a perception of truth and reliability, and at the same time have a strong hand in directing its content? From the other perspective, are Wikipedia’s utopian ideals undermined if individual countries decide to peel off and create their own walled-in resources?

The bosses of Wikipedia might not be too worried about the Chinese Encyclopedia, but if it’s successful then it could draw readers and writers away from China’s Wikipedia. Continue that drain over a number of countries and, instead of a singular, globally authored library, you have one resource floating in a pool of many. Like a set of country-sized filter bubbles, you end up with Turkey’s truth, China’s truth and America’s truth – the exact opposite of how internet utopians thought a web-based encyclopedia would pan out.

In an age when many Western countries are turning inwards with a renewed focus on nationalism, the diversity of Wikipedia isn’t something we want to see broken apart.

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