For the first time in nearly a year, users in mainland People's Republic of China can read much of Wikipedia's content without resorting to various circumvention techniques. Internet regulators last week partially lifted the blocking of Wikipedia. However, as Andrew Lih commented, "the most important part of Wikipedia for PRC users - the Chinese version - is still not generally accessible."
The lifting of the block was reported Tuesday, 10 October, on the Wikimedia Foundation mailing list by Mountain and Shi Zhao, two prominent contributors to the Chinese-language Wikipedia. They indicated that the English Wikipedia and most others could now be accessed, but the Chinese Wikipedia remained blocked.
Although not the first time Wikipedia has been blocked in the mainland of China, this has easily been the longest. The current round of blocking began on 18 October or 19 October 2005, meaning that the Chinese Wikipedia will have been blocked for a full year as of later this week. Two previous blocks in 2004 lasted for only a few days or weeks.
The new development was soon noticed by the outside media, although not always without some confusion about the facts. Editor & Publisher published a story on 11 October about the unblocking, relying in part on the article Blocking of Wikipedia in mainland China. It seemed to treat an edit by an unregistered user as if it were an official Wikipedia statement on the matter.
Reporters Without Borders, in its statement about the lifting of the block, said, "We congratulate those in charge of Wikipedia, especially Jimmy Wales, who could have chosen to censor their own site to get official blessing. Instead they stuck to their principles and spurned self-censorship." Alluding to internet companies that have been more accommodating to the PRC government in restricting access, the organisation called Wikipedia an example for them to follow.
The New York Times came out with a more carefully reported article about the story on 16 October. The article included a quote from Jimmy Wales that, "We are pleased to see the change, but would like to see the Chinese version unblocked, too".
Andrew Lih, who is based in Beijing and currently working on a book about Wikipedia, collected reports from various people about what they could and could not access. While there were some reports of being able to access at least part of the Chinese Wikipedia, he concluded that the majority of users probably could not. Reporters Without Borders said it had confirmed this in its tests as well. Lih updated his results on 16 October with a chart showing the accessibility of the English and Chinese versions, respectively, from a number of different locations.
In addition, the PRC has resumed filtering a variety of topics that are generally censored on all websites, such as the Falun Gong movement. Some relatively sensitive subjects could be accessed without resulting in a block, however, at least on the English Wikipedia.
The action reportedly came as the so-called "Great Firewall" was going through an upgrade. It's not known whether this had any connection to the partial lifting of the block. As in the past, no official explanations were available, so it is difficult to know the reasons for the change or whether this is merely a temporary reprieve.