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The BBC looks at Chinese government editing

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By Indy beetle and Smallbones
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video icon Wikipedia Wars?, BBC, 24:30[1]

The British Broadcasting Corporation dropped a bombshell on mainland China in its October 5 Click television program.[1] The segment reported by Carl Miller called Wikipedia Wars? strongly suggests that the Communist government of China is directly editing Wikipedia and perhaps even doxing or harassing editors in Taiwan. Widespread edit warring was also reported. However, as Miller notes in an interview in The Signpost "We cannot be sure who were behind the edits that we found, or why they were done ... there was nothing that directly tied these edits back to the Chinese government."

Incidents and accusations

As reported by Click, Wikimedia Taiwan board member Jamie Lin said that many incidents are not merely good faith differences of opinion, but instead "control by the [Chinese] Government". According to Lin, editors — not just content — are under pressure, "some [editors] have told us that their personal information has been sprayed [released], because they have different thoughts." On a Wikimedia Telegram channel, according to Lin, a person told a Taiwanese editor that "the policemen will enjoy your mother's forensic report".

Hong Kong resident 1233 confirmed to The Signpost that Hong Kong editors have had similar experiences. "Direct attacks on well-known editors who do not align with a single point of view and shutting down resistance through off-site harassment. This is what some members of the Mainland Chinese working group are doing. The Wikimedia Foundation is ineffective in dealing with off-site harassment – the WMF really can't do anything. The working group manipulates on-site rules to silence whistleblowers and completely ruin how the project runs. This method is so effective that some working group editors practice it without even knowing that it violates civility at its root."[2]

An editor from mainland China, who did not wish to be identified, told The Signpost that "the BBC's coverage is biased and was backed by Wikimedia Taiwan, the anti-China chapter. The coverage just makes accusations, instead of trying to help solve the problem."[2] The opinions of this editor are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Signpost. He continued "Carl Miller interviewed Wikimedia Taiwan, anti-China scholars, but not Chinese Wikimedians themselves."[2]

When questioned by Click about possible Chinese government editing of Wikipedia, Heather Ford, Senior Lecturer in Media at the University of New South Wales, said, "I'm surprised it's taken this long actually [...] [Wikipedia] is a prioritised source of facts and knowledge about the world."

The Chinese story

Lokman Tsui, Assistant Professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told Click that the battle over Wikipedia content comes at a time when China is showing an increasing desire to fix perceived misconceptions about it abroad, "'Telling China's story' is a concept that has gained huge traction over the past couple of years [...] They think that a lot of the perceptions people have of China abroad are really misunderstandings."

Editor 1233 told The Signpost "The idea of a unique "Chinese view" or "Chinese story" on Wikipedia would be as disastrous as making the Foundation a for-profit entity. It would ruin the reputation of the project."[2]

Two papers cited by Click show that the Chinese government might be interested in altering content on Wikipedia to show itself in a more favorable light. In 2016, Jie Ding, an official at the China International Publishing Group, a global media corporation overseen by the Communist Party of China, published the paper "Analysis of the Feasibility of Using Wikipedia to Carry out the Dissemination of Chinese Political Discourse" in International Communications. Ding posits that "there is a lack of systematic ordering and maintenance of contents about China's major political discourse on Wikipedia" and says that it needs to "reflect our voices and opinions in the entry, so as to objectively and truly reflect the influence of Chinese path and Chinese thoughts on other countries and history".

This line of thought is shared by at least two Chinese academics. This year, Li-hao Gan and Bin-Ting Weng published "Opportunities And Challenges Of China's Foreign Communication in the Wikipedia" in the Journal of Social Sciences. They write that "due to the influence by foreign media, Wikipedia entries have a large number of prejudiced words against the Chinese government". To rectify this, they say the Chinese "must develop a targeted external communication strategy, which includes [...] cultivating influential editors on the wiki platform." They conclude with "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."

The unnamed mainland editor quoted above says that "just two academic papers can't represent what China's propaganda department wants. Countless academic papers in China are aimed at foreign media, including the newswires, Twitter, and Wikipedia, with over 20 so far in October."[2]

The Signpost checked a case of edit warring cited by Click. At 14:20 on September 11 User:Xiaolifeidaohank changed the lead sentence of the Taiwan article from "Taiwan, officially the Republic of China (ROC), is a state in East Asia" to "Taiwan [...] is a province in People's Republic of China." No explanation was provided in the edit summary. User:Kusma reverted the change five minutes later. Xiaolifeidaohank quickly implemented the change again, and then subsequently removed mention of "Republic of China" from the sentence, without an edit summary. Kusma reverted this, and the exchange happened once more before the article's lead was left in its original form, 11 minutes after the edit war started. The BBC characterized this as an "an editorial tug of war that – as far as the encyclopedia was concerned – caused the state of Taiwan to constantly blink in and out of existence over the course of a single day."

According to Click, this single-day event is part of a larger conflict over the politicization of Chinese content across both English and Chinese Wikipedias. This conflict includes a change to the Senkaku Islands article on Chinese Wikipedia to say that they are "China's inherent territory". The territorial status of the islands is currently disputed by Taiwan, the People's Republic of China, and Japan. The Chinese article for 1989 Tiananmen Square protests was altered to describe the event as "the June 4th incident" to "quell the counter-revolutionary riots". Meanwhile, the article for the 2019 Hong Kong protests has seen intense debate over whether to characterize the participants as protesters or rioters. Click identified "almost 1,600 tendentious edits across 22 politically sensitive articles" without specifying the Wikipedia language versions.

Fundamental conditions

Click skipped very quickly over two of the fundamental conditions that the Chinese Wikipedia operates under. Editor 1233 told The Signpost that a "systematic "firewall" against the free flow of information has created a direct and effective blocking of voices from inside the wall. I cannot say for sure that the pro-China voices coming from inside China are cherry-picked. However, the firewall is so effective that most, other than those who are considered 'top dissidents', already have their voices shut out of the outside world."[2]

Some Wikipedia language versions have been blocked in China starting as early as 2004, but the Chinese Wikipedia was most affected. By April 2019, all Wikipedia versions were reported to be blocked. Mainland Chinese editors who wish to edit any version of Wikipedia can try to edit through proxies.

The use of proxies has had an effect on Click's coverage according to the unnamed mainland editor. It "seems to target the Chinese government, but anyone who reads it would apply these false statements to ordinary mainland Chinese Wikimedians in general and conclude that all mainland Chinese contributors are sent by the Chinese government."[2]


  1. ^ a b "China and Taiwan clash over Wikipedia edits". Click (TV programme) at BBC. 5 October 2019. Retrieved 26 October 2019.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g All interviews by The Signpost were conducted during October 2019

For related coverage, see: Interview and Community view

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