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Reflections on the Chinese Wikipedia

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By 不爱思考得猪

As a long-time Wikipedia reader and editor, I first discovered Wikipedia in 2003 and have never gone without it since. I still remember all the nights I spent clicking on link after link in enwiki and wound up with 30 open Internet Explorer windows (that was back when browsers had no tabs), after reading Wikipedia for an entire night without any sleep. I can now no longer imagine a world in which we did not have free access to the sum of human knowledge at our fingertips. I started my zhwiki account back in 2005 in order to create and edit zhwiki articles. I mainly function as a translator from enwiki to zhwiki, given the cornucopia of articles on enwiki and the dearth of articles on zhwiki, and my native proficiency in both languages.

My views on the banning of seven Chinese editors and the desysoping of 12 more by WMF office action last month represent only my own opinions. I hope that my vantage point, from an ordinary long-time reader and editor, will add a fresh perspective on the ongoing debate, and that my long tenure on zhwiki, including the recent changes, will show the urgent need for the WMF’s recent actions. As I am also a Wikimedian from China, much of what I write here is also a critique of some of my fellow Wikimedians from China.

My first perspective, and one that is the most important to recent events, is simply common etiquette. I am not just talking about the usual good faith Wikipedia editing etiquette, but rather the fundamental etiquette of holding a civil discussion in a modern liberal free-speech society. This fundamental etiquette has been lacking lately on zhwiki. I felt this most acutely after my return to zhwiki from a 7-year Wiki sabbatical. During one month (July 2021), I was reported to 3RR (zhwiki’s Edit warring board) twice, ANM (zhwiki’s version of ANI) 4 times, and AIAV (zhwiki’s Administrator intervention against vandalism) four times. I'd never been reported once in my life on zhwiki prior to July 2021. Editing zhwiki never felt this difficult before. It was like struggling in a pit of molasses, making me too bogged down to complete any useful edit, discussion, or discourse. If so much happened to a single person over the course of a single month, I can only imagine the collective grievances felt by the wider zhwiki community at having to constantly expend needless energy, the time and effort to deal with these editors and their behavior day-in-and-day-out, over the course of these past two or three years. For every step taken forward, three steps were taken backward. Why did zhwiki deteriorate to this state? It may be because of the influx of Wikimedians from mainland China. some of whom have never been taught basic etiquette of communicating in a civil and polite manner, which is fundamental to the proper conduct of free speech. As free speech does not exist in mainland China, for some Wikimedians free speech is an entirely unfamiliar and foreign concept. China is not a diverse society, so some Wikimedians have no tolerance for opinions that are at odds with their own. This is at the root of the problems plaguing zhwiki right now: some Wikimedians from mainland China, having no idea how to conduct proper civil discussions in a free-speech environment - having come from a free-speech-barren country where this etiquette was never taught to them in the first place, employing methods such as edit warring and weaponizing the reporting boards (and, in more extreme cases, threatening to report some Hong Kong Wikimedians to the National Security apparatus in Hong Kong, which directly precipitated some of the actions taken by the WMF recently) in order to intimidate the zhwiki community at large into cowering and catering to the pro-Beijing narratives that they are advancing. Viewed in this light, the steps taken by the WMF are merely the first urgently needed steps to restore a healthy zhwiki community.

My second perspective is that of some Wikimedians from China’s misunderstanding of the terms "democracy" and "freedom of speech". This is not surprising considering that the true meanings of these terms are taboo in China and China's government has always deliberately distorted these terms into: "freedom of speech" = "you can say whatever the hell you want" and "democracy" = "a person who is elected with many votes represents the will of the people (or heaven’s mandate), and hence cannot be impeached, even though the votes may have been rigged and the person an asshole", in order to set up strawman attacks on Western democracies as being “essentially anarchic” (when it comes to free speech) or "run by the shadow hands of big capitalists" (when it comes to ousting unsuitable leaders voted in on rigged votes), and in order to tout China’s system as being the best. More importantly, what some Wikimedians from China have never learned, a concept that may be entirely foreign to them, is that there are circumstances under which the notions of "democracy" and "freedom of speech" just do not apply. The notion that democracy and freedom of speech only apply to public spaces that are under the jurisdiction of a state’s government is new to them. That they do not apply to private spaces. A very simple example would be: if you are employed by the Acme company, and you say "Acme sells garbage", then you may be fired, and that has nothing to do with freedom of speech. The same can be said of Twitter and Facebook banning Trump, YouTube censoring inappropriate videos, and WMF taking actions to globally ban some people on zhwiki as the WMF sees fit. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Wikipedia are all private spaces that are owned by Twitter, Facebook, Google, and the WMF respectively, and so the concepts of "democracy" and "freedom of speech" may not apply under these circumstances.

My third perspective is that of the well-known psychological phenomenon of "Stockholm Syndrome". This is most exemplified by Wikipedians of Mainland China User Group's (WMCUG’s) first open letter to the WMF:

In addition, if Wikipedia in mainland China is really as dangerous as what Maggie suggested in her statement, then I suppose that isn’t it is going to push mainland Chinese Wikimedians into a more dangerous situation (original Chinese wording reads “firepit”) if the Foundation publicly "condemns" the Chinese government and potentially angers them?
— Cast Away Illusions, Prepare For Struggle — WMC’s First Open Letter on the Recent Office Action

I don’t know whether Maggie was suggesting that the reason for "it is dangerous to contribute in China" was the Chinese government’s blockade on Wikipedia, or because of the existence of the WMC being a "gang" that scares people off. For the former, I hope that the Foundation will immediately withdraw the statement that "condemns" the Chinese government
— Cast Away Illusions, Prepare For Struggle — WMC’s First Open Letter on the Recent Office Action

WMCUG points out that WMF is "abandoning China", even if this accusation was true, when faced with a regime that actively blocks all Wikimedia projects, what is the WMF supposed to do? Appease to China’s government and self-censor all relevant articles in the hope that China might unblock Wikimedia projects, when in fact the rationales for China’s blocking of Wikimedia projects (along with many other websites) are totally opaque, arbitrary, and unpredictable to begin with? The last time such an appeasement approach was used was on the eve of the Second World War, when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement with Adolf Hitler ceding the entire Sudeten territory of Czekoslovakia to Nazi Germany, and we all know how that approach went down the annals of history. Instead of criticizing China’s government for its unacceptable behaviour in blocking all Wikimedia projects, WMCUG instead lays their blame squarely on the WMF, who in this case is also a victim of China’s Great Firewall. Such behaviour from the WMCUG constitute archetypal "Stockholm Syndrome" behaviours.

My fourth perspective is that some Wikimedians from China have a lack of basic understanding of the international consensus, reality and norms regarding some proper nouns. A most germane case in point would be the proper noun "Taiwan". The international consensus regarding Taiwan is that it is its own sovereign state, having its own defined territory, government, citizenry and sovereignty. That Taiwan is a state independent from China (albeit a non-UN state with limited official international recognition and limited official diplomatic ties with other countries). However, some Wikimedians from China have been indoctrinated from a very young age that "Taiwan is a province of China", and so they bring these views with them when they first visit zhwiki. It is easy, then, to imagine the shock they get when they see the Taiwan and Republic of China articles on zhwiki for the first time — those articles being very, very different from their counterparts on the Baidu Baike encyclopedia and essentially anathema to Wikimedians from China. It is then easy to imagine fuses being lit in the heads of these Wikimedians, which will lead to them directly engaging in massive edit wars with the entire zhwiki community at large, as they attempt to "correct" and these articles that are so anathema to them. To the rest of the zhwiki community, such behaviour is tantamount to vandalism.

My fifth perspective concerns Maggie Dennis's use of the word "infiltration". This word is not being used inappropriately here. Judging by the vehement reactions of some Wikimedians from China against the use of this word, it must have rubbed squarely on their sore spot, which, given the China context, usually means that we must have at least hit on some semblance of the underlying truth (i.e. having caught some Wikimedians from China with their hands in the cookie jar, their embarrassment leading to their visceral reactions to this word). Let me put it this way: maybe not all seven people banned are under the orders of China’s government to infiltrate zhwiki and to attempt to spin things in a more positive light for China's government, but if you were to tell me that all seven people are innocent and are acting of their own accords, having nothing to do with China's government, then you would definitely be pulling my leg. China under the leadership of President Xi Jinping has set "cyber-sovereignty" as the overarching prime directive of China’s Internet control strategy, and Wikipedia is an obvious "first battleground" for China’s government to attempt to take over in order to advance its "cyber-sovereignty" agenda. I know this flies in the face of one of the most fundamental tenets of Wikipedia — "not a battleground" — but then again China’s government has never been quite good at following any rules, laws, regulations, or guidelines, even those of its own. The title of WMCUG’s first open letter to the WMF, "Cast Away Illusions, Prepare For Struggle", which came from Mao Zedong,[a] who was a mastermind at waging civil wars and creating internal domestic conflicts (such as the Great Cultural Revolution) that ended up claiming millions upon millions of innocent Chinese lives, is further testament to the idea of China’s government treating Wikipedia as one of its primary "battlegrounds without smoke or gunfire", upon which to wage its ideological warfare against the wider international community, and the free world at large.

My final perspective concerns "China’s government had never harassed any Wikimedians" which is an argument some Wikimedians from China repeatedly tout, especially in comparison to what they perceive to be the "draconian actions" taken by the WMF against the seven people. Just because China’s government has never harassed any Wikimedians so far does not mean that China's government won't harass any Wikimedians in the future. For the past twenty years, China's government had left people such as Vicky Zhao, Bingbing Fan, and Jack Ma alone, and look at the things China's government had done to these people recently. One can never predict which individuals or organizations a totalitarian government is going to go after next. So the fact that a totalitarian government hasn't gone after Wikimedians in China is really nothing to write home about, and actively bragging about it and flaunting it in the WMF's face is, in my opinion, merely another facet of the manifestation of "Stockholm Syndrome" in these Wikimedians from China.

Notes

  1. ^ Selected Works, dated August 14, 1949 (online) – editors
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