Whenever people have sought to exercise their freedom of expression, censorship wasn’t too far behind. The word itself can be traced to the office of censor established in Rome in 443 BCE — the Roman Republic thought good governance included shaping the people’s character. More than 2,000 years later, access to information is still not free in all places of the world despite the fact that we’re now living in the digital age of the internet. And like Rome before it, China is also adamant about what kind of information it allows and, more importantly, what it doesn’t allow its citizens to access.
There are hundreds if not thousands of websites blocked in China, including Google, YouTube, Facebook, and, as of recently, Wikipedia.
The Wikimedia Foundation released a statement on May 17, 2019, confirming that Wikipedia was “no longer accessible in the People’s Republic of China—impacting more than 1.3 billion readers, students, professionals, researchers, and more who can no longer access this resource or share their knowledge and achievements with the world.”
Censoring knowledge in broad strokes
Banning encyclopedias isn’t a modern occurrence. In 1752, the French royal court ordered the distribution of the Encyclopédie to be immediately ceased on grounds that it was “destroying royal authority and encouraging a spirit of independence and revolt.” Denis Diderot and other authors of the French encyclopedia were charged as heretics for suggesting that observation and reason are the sources of knowledge rather than religious authorities.
China’s banning of Wikipedia came without warning, just as previously blocked thousands of other websites to enforce its ‘Great Firewall’ — a strictly controlled ‘Chinanet’ where only part approved values and opinions are publically allowed.
But despite China’s silent approach to banning Wikipedia, we can’t say that it was surprising given the history of the two entities.
Wikipedia has been blocked intermittently since 2004 over controversies surrounding certain Wiki pages that the Chinese communist party considers controversial, such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, or about Mao Zedong and Taiwan.
Most sensitive political articles remained blocked in mainland China for both the English and Chinese versions of Wikipedia until June 2015. Up until then, Wikipedia had been using the non-secure HTTP version, which allowed individual articles to be selectively blocked. But after that date, Wikipedia switched to HTTPS for its entire site, thereby making encryption mandatory for all users and making it impossible to block individual pages. In response, China simply blocked the whole domain.
The Chinese government banned Wikipedia for all languages, not just Mandarin, as it was aware of advances in translation software that can enable anyone to read content from other encyclopedia editions.
Of course, there’s always the option of using aVPN in order to browse Wikipedia from China — but do so at your own risk. On 24 October 2020, a Chinese citizen from Zhoushan, Zhejiang province, came under police attention for “illegally visiting Wikipedia”. The extent of the VPN crackdown is not clear, but news reports have documented police arresting VPN users in at least Hunan and Guizhou.
“There’s no doubt that similar things are happening much more often this year,” Mo Shaoping, a prominent Chinese human-rights lawyer, told The Globe and Mail. “Restrictions for online communities and activities have become increasingly strict. The number of cases in which people are held legally accountable is also growing,” even for reposting controversial foreign content domestically.
The only other country except for China that has banned all editions of Wikipedia is Turkey. Turkish authorities have demanded Wikipedia to “remove content by writers supporting terror and of linking Turkey to terror groups.” In December 2019, the Constitutional Court of Turkey ruled that the block of Wikipedia was unconstitutional and since 15 January 2020, the website is once again accessible in Turkey. However, Wikipedia remains fully blocked in China and it seems like it will stay this way in the foreseeable future.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.