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Hardball in Hong Kong

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By Smallbones

The forced closure of Hong Kong's pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily,[1] published by Jimmy Lai, has led to a crisis in the Chinese Wikipedia (zh.WP) editing community, according to two articles published in the Hong Kong Free Press. HKFP reports that several pro-Beijing editors apparently posted on the Tencent QQ messaging board used by mainland China Wikipedia editors, threatening to name pro-democracy editors in Hong Kong to the National Security Police. HKFP singled out an editor from mainland China for serious criticism: User:Walter Grassroot (henceforth, WG).

A Signpost investigation shows that WG has close ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and that he has edited Wikipedia with a strategic purpose of "counter-reconnaissance".[2]

Though HKFP couldn't confirm that the Tencent user "Walter Grassroot" was the same person as the zh.WP editor with that username, they stated that the Tencent user with that name replied to a posting of the Security Police's phone number with the message "We should report those from the Hong Kong user group." HKFP also posted a graphic containing screenshots of the messages in Chinese. WG told The Signpost that he denies all of the HKFP accusations.

A contentious history

Since 2004, China has intermittently blocked access to various language versions of Wikipedia from mainland China. When Wikipedia introduced support in 2015 for the secure HTTPS protocol that does not allow blocking individual articles, China has more consistently blocked all versions of Wikipedia. Virtual private networks, or VPNs, may still be used to access and edit the site, allowing some editors from the mainland to continue editing, though merely subscribing to a VPN can attract the attention of the authorities. Editors of zh.WP are believed to be approximately equal in numbers from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland users.

A series of political crises in Hong Kong has led to parallel crises in the Chinese editing community, setting many mainland editors in opposition to many Hong Kong and Taiwanese editors. These crises include the Umbrella Revolution in 2014, and the anti-extradition movement of 2019–2020, which led to a new National Security Law.

The ramifications for the zh.WP community have previously been covered in a BBC documentary in 2019, reported by Carl Miller and by The Signpost in 2014 and three articles in 2019.

Carl Miller told The Signpost that Beijing's internet activity has continued on the same trajectory since 2019:

only [it has] accelerated over the pandemic. China has intensified its international messaging amidst an increasing concern for how it's perceived in the world. That's been a combination of overt strategic communication, but also a drumbeat of revelations of covert inauthentic networks that it's been deploying across social media platforms–-Facebook,Twitter and Reddit for sure, and likely Wikipedia too. This is in part about propagating good news stories about China, but also denying online spaces to critics, and online abuse, harassment and threats is one kind of tactic to do exactly that.
— Emails from Carl Miller to Smallbones, July 19-20, 2021

User:Techyan is a liaison with the group Wikipedians of Mainland China, which has 40-50 active Wikipedia editors as members. WMC is a proposed affiliate of the Wikimedia Foundation that maintains contact with other Wikipedians and Wiki groups. It also runs the QQ message board referred to in the HKFP news articles. Techyan says that he has reviewed the history of the messages posted on the board and has not found the purported threats.

Techyan believes that the conflicts on zh.WP are based on politics rather than on geography. "There are plenty of pro-Beijing Hong Kongers and anti-Beijing mainlanders—and you shouldn't underestimate the numbers of them."[3] He believes that an anti-Beijing mainlander is in a more difficult position than an anti-Beijing Hong Konger.

A national security law has been implemented in mainland China years before the one in Hong Kong, even before Hong Kong's mass protest in 2019 and China's attempt to restrict freedom in Hong Kong. Yet, no one has been arrested or harassed by the police for their activities on Wikipedia in the mainland, let alone in Hong Kong.
— Emails from Techyan to Smallbones, July 17-22, 2021

Hong Kong editors

The beliefs and fears of most, but not all, Hong Kong Wikipedians were well covered in the two HKFP articles, which The Signpost has confirmed in multiple interviews with Hong Kong editors. Some of these editors expressed deep reservations about being quoted in this article. Rather than risk indirectly exposing some of these editors to arrest, we will simply paraphrase points in the HKFP articles that most of them appear to agree on.

Since at least 2019, editing has been contentious. With recent political changes and the new national security law, editing has become more difficult. The loss of Apple Daily has made finding sources on controversial topics more difficult. Hong Kong editors believe that the posting of the threat to turn in editors to the National Security Police is authentic, a real threat to themselves that came from the mainland community, and is a substantive threat to their personal freedom. They've met to discuss how to protect themselves and some have asked the WMF for help.
— Summary of emails from various editors to Smallbones, July 2021

With this background in place, let us now turn to the case of Walter Grassroot, or WG.

Wikipedia User:Walter Grassroot

WG told The Signpost via email that he started editing Wikipedia in 2008. "Me and my bot (WalterBot) have created over 45,000 articles (Top 3) and contributed over 140,000 edits on Chinese Wikipedia in the last 13 years. Currently, I live in Shenzhen, Guangdong, China." He also wrote "I am not a member of the Chinese Communist Party, but I treasure myself as a Marxist," and that he learned to love the ideas of Marx, Trotsky, and Mao during his graduate studies in the United States.[4]

He was accused by a Hong Kong editor in HKFP of removing references in Wikipedia articles to the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, just before the government forced that paper to close. He disputes all of the accusations in the HKFP articles against him.

He says that his editing history from that time shows he was editing 20–50 articles per day and removed several references to Apple Daily, but in many more cases he left Apple Daily references in the articles. WG denies posting the threat on the QQ message platform to identify Hong Kong editors. And he says that the graphic that purports to show the threat is a "forgery".[5] Against this, the HKFP editor informed The Signpost that the original screenshots that were included in the graphic were verified "through a vigorous fact-checking process—including speaking to other Wikipedians [...] to verify sourcing before publishing."

WG also says that he had reason to believe that the Hong Kong User Group (an official affiliate of the Wikimedia Foundation) was filing a complaint against him with the WMF's Trust & Safety group.[6] HKFP wrote on July 14 that "representatives from the group [of Hong Kong editors] told HKFP they are hoping to seek assistance from the Wikimedia Foundation after a meeting."

According to WG, he has now filed his own complaint with Trust & Safety, which he says has acknowledged receipt of his complaint. (By policy, T&S can only confirm receipt of a complaint to the complainant.) WG expressed the hope that the WMF would soon clear his name.[7]

WG's statements on whether he is a member of the Chinese Communist Party have been confusing or contradictory, but indicate a close relationship with the party. In 2019 he commented to the readers of The Signpost:

As [...] a citizen of Shenzhen and a CCP member, I am delighted to observe the current chaos in Hong Kong, and expact the prospective widening gap between Shenzhen and Hong Kong in next fiscal year and future. Thanks to their night efforts in streets and subways, the HK is sinking inevitably. I am a neutral to neither support or oppose any side, despite most of my friends at Zhwiki naively hope HK returns to normal ASAP.
— Comments: Chinese Wikipedia and the battle against extradition from Hong Kong [1]

He recently explained further:

I am not a member of CCP, because I did not submit any application. Rumors are everwhere, somehow it increased issues somehow it enhanced safety, particularly in such Chinese wiki societies, haha.

CCP is not KGB, it is a public political group. My parents, wife, and most of my friends and colleagues are CCP members. I love them all very much.

— Email from WG to Smallbones, July 22, 2021

On July 24 WG explained his 2019 comment in The Signpost further. Another editor's username has been redacted by The Signpost.

I wrote that words for [username redacted] and other trash-like accounts for strategical purpose, which were mixed with some real/unreal information - similar as he did so. The strategical purpose will protect the current Chinese editor out of the threatens - these pieces of untrue information would help most Chinese editor for counter-reconnaissance.
— Email from WG to Smallbones, July 24, 2021

Techyan, the liaison for Wikipedians of Mainland China, offers a possible defense of WG: "Walter Grassroot is known to be a pro-Beijing hardliner in the community, and it sounds reasonable for him to say something such as in the alleged screenshot." However, his reputation might make it easier for WG to be "framed by those in the community who are anti-Beijing, in an attempt to delegitimize pro-Beijing editors and associate them with the CCP."[8]

The disagreement between the Hong Kong editors and WG is stark: the Hong Kong editors say that WG removed citations to Apple Daily from zh.WP, and threatened to turn them in to the National Security Police on the Tencent QQ message board. WG says he only removed a few citations to Apple Daily and that the message was a forgery. They do agree in one area: people on both sides say they have sought help from the WMF, and would like quick action against the other side.

WMF response

On Friday, July 23 the WMF released the following statement.

The Wikimedia Foundation cannot go into great detail about the current situation of our volunteer community in Hong Kong to protect the privacy and safety of volunteers. We recognize this can sometimes be frustrating for people wanting to help with situations, but we believe a consistent approach to privacy and confidentiality is vital to protecting volunteers. With that said, we are providing more information below about our current actions.

The Legal and Trust & Safety teams at the Wikimedia Foundation consistently support our volunteers in ensuring their safety and security for their contributions to Wikipedia, with a particular focus on our volunteers in Hong Kong at this time. The Foundation has been closely monitoring the situation in Hong Kong and has been in touch directly with volunteers in that region. We will continue to have an open dialogue with volunteers in Hong Kong to determine the best way the Foundation can support them during this time.


  1. ^ Deutsche Welle video on the closing of Apple Daily
  2. ^ Email from WG to Smallbones, July 24, 2021. All other quotes in this article from WG were also confirmed in this email.
  3. ^ Emails from Techyan to Smallbones, July 17-22, 2021
  4. ^ Emails from WG to Smallbones, July 22-23, 2021
  5. ^ Emails from WG to Smallbones, July 15 & 24, 2021
  6. ^ Email from WG to Smallbones, July 16, 2021
  7. ^ Email from WG to Smallbones, July 16, 2021
  8. ^ Email from Techyan to Smallbones, July 24, 2021

For developments after this article's publication, see Meta RFC (August 2021) and WMF Office action statement (September 2021).

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