GREAT WALL OF CULTURE

China is making an official version of Wikipedia

Obsession
China's Transition
Obsession
China's Transition

By next year, China is planning to have its own official version of the massive online encyclopedia Wikipedia. There will, of course, be some adaptations, given the country’s heavy internal censorship and blocking of information from overseas.

Instead of being created in a freewheeling collaboration by volunteers, and openly editable, the Chinese encyclopedia will be a collaboration among scholars carefully selected from state-owned universities and institutions (link in Chinese), such as the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a state-backed think tank.

China’s State Council, the country’s cabinet, approved the online project in 2011. The reference work already exists offline, with two editions published in in 1993 (link in Chinese) and 2009, but it’s unclear how widely distributed these have been. In an update (link in Chinese) last month, after a meeting for the project’s science discipline, Liu Guohui, deputy editor of the publication, said that more than 20,000 scholars are participating in the online version. It will include more than 300,000 entries, each about 1,000 words long with 103 disciplines in 2018, with more to follow subsequently.

Confined within the Great Fire Wall, China’s netizens have few options for independent reference information on different topics—Wikipedia is intermittently blocked in China, both in English and Chinese. It’s highly doubtful that this government-backed effort will change that.

It will also be competing for attention with private firms that have set up online encyclopedias in China. The two biggest are from search giant Baidu and Qihu360, a Beijing-based anti-virus software company. Qihu360 has over 30 million articles (link in Chinese), and Baidu’s encyclopedia, Baidu Baike, has over 14 million articles (link in Chinese). In a nod to Wikipedia, both can be edited by volunteers—but edits are subject to final approval by the companies.

The official effort, though, seems to be guided by the nationalist ethos of the first iterations of encyclopedias. The Encyclopedia Britannica, which is now only updated online, came about as a conservative response to France’s Encyclopédie (according, of course to Wikipedia). At the meeting last month, Yang Muzhi, chief executive editor of the third edition, said the online encyclopedia will be “a Great Wall of culture,” meant to guide the public (the combined 107 volumes of the earlier editions, only available in print, may not have been so successful in reaching young people who are often online). He also said China felt pressure to “to catch up” with other national encyclopedias.

In December, Yang also said Wikipedia might convey “the impression that it’s authoritative and accurate.” But, he suggested, volunteers can’t possibly be as authoritative as dozens of scholars.

“Which encyclopedia in the world has such a big writer team of high quality?” he wrote (link in Chinese). “We can be confident to say that the contents of Chinese Encyclopedia are accurate, authoritative and guaranteed.”

It will be interesting to see how the online encyclopedia addresses topics like the “nine-dash line” or Korea’s past relationship with China.

This article earlier said Wikipedia was blocked in China. The article has been updated to reflect that at present, depending on browser and location, it can be accessed.

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