China and Wikipedia have always had a contentious relationship, and it appears that authorities are beginning to realise that if they can’t allow access to the site, they will have to build one of their own. But the leader of the new project says “our goal is not to catch up, but overtake”.
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South China Morning Post reports:
“The Chinese Encyclopaedia is not a book, but a Great Wall of culture,” Yang Muzhi, the editor-in-chief of the project and the chairman of the Book and Periodicals Distribution Association of China, told senior scientists at a meeting at the headquarters of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Beijing on April 12, according to a report on the academy’s website the next day.
This new online project will be the third edition of the Chinese Encyclopaedia and by far its largest iteration yet. Over 20,000 authors from universities and research institutes are working to stock the publication with over 300,000 entries relating to more than 100 disciplines. The finished product is expected to be twice the size of the Encyclopedia Brittanica and on par with the Chinese language Wikipedia which currently has 938,000 entries.
China’s Wikipedia problem presents a paradox for a country that has ambitions to be on the cutting edge of technology and science while still maintaining control over the information that its citizens have access to. Yang’s comment that his encyclopedia will be a “Great Wall of culture” echoes the “Great Firewall” that limits what areas of the web that Chinese netizens are allowed to peruse.
The limitations on Wikipedia fluctuate in China depending on the current political climate as well as changes that the online resource makes to its own service. In 2015, Wikipedia switched to encrypted HTTPS, making it more difficult for China to block individual pages. Authorities proceeded to block only the Chinese language version of the site, then all versions of the site. According to the South China Morning Post, currently, “access to Wikipedia is patchy on the mainland… Most entries on science and technology can be read, but a search for sensitive keywords such as “Dalai Lama” and “Xi Jinping” will result in the connection to the server being lost.”
Sites like Baidu Baike and Baike.com are privately owned online encyclopedia wikis that accept user generated content but they also strictly censor content that violates government regulations. That has led many Chinese citizens to consider the services just another arm of the state media.
It doesn’t appear that this new project will be a wiki, at first, but what’s interesting is that authorities are waking up to the need for an easy and accurate informational resource. Researchers say that the project was kicked off in 2011, but Encyclopaedia Britannica‘s decision to cease publishing its print version caused doubts about the viability of an old-fashioned encyclopedia. This led to more openness toward 21st-century approaches. Professor Huang Annian, a historian currently based in the United States, is one of the scholars working on the project and he wrote a letter to the editorial board insisting that moving forward, the “old political framework” should be abandoned.
As editor-in-chief, Yang will have to make a case for loosening censorship and possibly allowing crowd-sourced contributions if he wants to achieve his goals. Last year, he argued in a local newspaper that Wikipedia would be a tough competitor, writing, “The readers regarded it to be authoritative, accurate, and it branded itself as a ‘free encyclopedia that anyone can edit,’ which is quite bewitching.”
For now, Yang points to the high-quality of his team of authors as a selling point. Most likely, Wikipedia’s leadership isn’t very worried about their new rival. And if the original free encyclopedia has inspired more open information, that fits with their mission quite nicely.