Chinese censors block access to Wikipedia

Chinese censors have blocked access to an online encyclopedia called Chinese Wikipedia that was created as a free and open source of information for Chinese Internet users, according to several contributors to the site.

Chinese Wikipedia (http://zh.wikipedia.org) is a Chinese-language offshoot of Wikipedia, an online English-language encyclopedia that is also available in several other languages. Wikipedia is a wiki, a term that is derived from the Hawaiian word for "quick" and used to describe Web sites that can be edited by any reader, including anonymous visitors.

All versions of Wikipedia, including the Chinese-language version, employ a policy that enforces a neutral point of view for all entries and the content is copyrighted under the GNU Free Documentation License, a license for free content developed by the Free Software Foundation.

Chinese Wikipedia, which has not previously been blocked by Chinese censors, had been held up by observers as an example of openness on the Internet in China. In addition, the site, which has had a low profile and a relatively small group of regular contributors, was seen as a gauge of government tolerance for the free flow of information on the Internet in China.

Now Wikipedia has pushed that tolerance to its limit. Access to Chinese Wikipedia was blocked beginning on June 3, Menchi, a regular contributor to Chinese Wikipedia, said in an e-mail interview. (He requested his real name not be used for this story.)

That date is politically significant in China, coming one day before the 15th anniversary of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square crackdown, when the Chinese government used force to clear demonstrators from Tiananmen Square in central Beijing. Chinese officials typically crack down on dissidents and heighten censorship efforts each year in the run up to the anniversary.

Another contributor to Wikipedia was not surprised that the Chinese government moved to block access to the site ahead of the June 4th anniversary, noting that the entry regarding the June 4th crackdown had received a greater amount of attention from contributors in advance of the anniversary.

"When the June anniversary was coming, I found out that more and more people got involved in editing the article about the Tiananmen event, I was quite worried at that time," the Chinese contributor said in an online interview. He too requested that his name not be used in this story.

"I had been worrying that this may happen someday, since Chinese Wikipedia contains a lot of sensitive articles which are still taboo in China," the Chinese contributor said.

Another factor that likely contributed to the Chinese decision to block access to Wikipedia was an IDG News Service story published on May 16 about Chinese Wikipedia that included a description of the site's entry on the June 4th crackdown, Menchi said.

"It's quite obvious (the) article had a role in bring us to the attention of the PRC (People's Republic of China) officials and resulted in the block," he said, noting that regardless of the article contributors expected that Chinese censors would eventually decide to block access to Chinese Wikipedia.

"We knew this day would come. So, we have been mentally prepared for this," Menchi said.

Looking ahead, there are signs that Chinese efforts to block access to Chinese Wikipedia could extend beyond the June 4th anniversary.

On Sunday, efforts to block Chinese Wikipedia were expanded to all other versions of the online encyclopedia, Menchi said. Internet users in Beijing contacted by IDG News Service confirmed that the Chinese and English versions of Wikipedia could not be accessed on Monday afternoon.

For now, contributors to Chinese Wikipedia worry there is little that could be done to reverse Chinese efforts to block access to the site. A forum on the Wikipedia Web site discussed possible measures that could be taken to remove the block, including contacting Chinese government officials directly, but Menchi was not hopeful that a solution can be found.

"It seems bleak. There are not many solid grounds on which we can argue for the block to be stopped," he said, noting contributors are waiting to see whether the block will be lifted or made permanent.

If the block is permanent, that could bring the expansion of Chinese Wikipedia to a halt, Menchi said. The site, which draws on the efforts of around 100 regular contributors, mostly in mainland China, has grown from more than 9,000 entries in mid-May to 10,915 entries. Despite that rapid growth, Chinese Wikipedia is dwarfed by the English-version of the encyclopedia, which currently has more than 283,000 entries.

There may be little that Chinese Wikipedia can do to resolve the problem of being blocked by Chinese Internet censors without compromising its commitment to being an open encyclopedia with a neutral point of view, Menchi said.

"The lack of compromise may lead to futile confrontation with a giant. And this is the crossroads where Chinese Wikipedia stands now," he said.

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