This week The Washington Post is running a series on “The Great Firewall of China.” Reporter Phil Pan wrote an excellent piece describing the history of Chinese Wikipedia and the saga of it being blocked three times over the last two years. (It’s still blocked as of this writing.)
While the stories in the U.S. have focused on Wikipedia’s weaknesses — the John Seigenthaler case, citation in college student papers, or comparisions with Britannica — I always remind folks that outside of the English-speaking world, Wikipedia’s impact is much more profound. Phil provides a small glimpse of the dynamics among PRC, Taiwan, Hong Kong and “overseas Chinese” in the editing process. He writes:
To many educated in China, these governing principles of Wikipedia — objectivity in content, equality among users, the importance of consensus — were relatively new concepts. Yuan said he consulted the work of philosopher John Rawls and economist Friedrich Hayek to better understand how a free community could organize itself and “produce order from chaos.”
“We had heard of these ideas, but they really didn’t have much to do with our lives,” said Yuan, now a computer programmer. “In school, we were taught an official point of view, not a neutral point of view. And we didn’t learn much about how to cooperate with people who had different opinions.”
It’s important to realize that for most other languages, there is no general knowledge encyclopedia that is freely available, not to mention one that provides the “neutral point of view” that is Wikipedia’s calling card. The implications for Asia are enormous.
After stagnating for two years, the Arabic language Wikipedia recently surged to over 10,000 articles, forming a solid foundation for free educational content for the Middle East. Bangladesh media activist and photojournalist Shahidul Alam said at a recent conference that he finally saw a way for the true history of his country to be told, and it was through Wikipedia. In English language circles, we can debate the merits of Wikipedia’s value against well-established information sources. But for much of the world, it comes just at the right time.