Wikipedia in Chinese editing war of words

 Wikipedia's ability to retain balance on Chinese issues has been called into question following the global platform's ban preventing several mainland Chinese "editors" writing and updating pages.


Against the backdrop of tensions between Hong Kong and mainland China, the quelled demonstrations of 2019 and 2020 have turned into a war of words between Wikipedia editors who are pro-democracy and those who are pro-Beijing.


Anyone can edit most Wikipedia pages, but only a fraction of users tend to do so - and only some of those on a regular basis.


Matters came to a head in September when Wikipedia's governing body banned seven active pro-Beijing editors and removed the administrative powers of a further 12.

Those involved were accused of bullying and intimidating editors who had a pro-democracy stance.


But pro-Beijing voices taking part in a BBC Click investigation say the actions will mean that the narratives relating to China and Hong Kong will be biased towards a western viewpoint.

"Wikipedia, especially Chinese Wikipedia, is a balance," says Enming Yan, a former administrator of the site, with greater editing powers, who now lives outside the mainland. He has been banned from the platform, but he denies misusing it"You're removing pro-Beijing voices and so the balance is going to tilt towards anti-Beijing forces within Wikipedia."

However, Wikipedia's founder, Jimmy Wales, says the platform's principles of freedom of expression and neutrality apply globally.

"I have deep experience of talking to people all over the world, and the idea that people in China, for example, are so brainwashed that they can't see that neutrality is just false," said Mr Wales.

"So many people are able to say, 'Here's my view of the world but there are other viewpoints, and an encyclopaedia should present an explanation of these viewpoints in a fair way'."

'Edit wars'

The investigation by BBC Click uncovered "edit wars" between pro-Beijing and pro-democracy editors on issues relating to Hong Kong, largely on the Chinese-language site but also on the English version.

"Pro-Beijing people often remove content that is sympathetic to protests, such as tear gas being fired and images of barricades. They also add their own content," says a Hong Kong-based editor named "John", who wanted to remain anonymous because of fears of intimidation.

But he acknowledges that "edit wars" happen on both sides.

"Pro-democracy editors tend to add content to shift the balance or the tone of the article, but in my experience, the pro-Beijing editors are a lot more aggressive in churning out disinformation," he says.

"It's now unfixable without external interference. Someone is trying to rewrite history."

He says many of the pro-Beijing editors are patriotic citizens living outside China, while those editing from within the mainland are using methods like VPNs (virtual private networks) to circumvent the government's block on the site.

One example of the "edit wars" is an article in the Chinese-language Wikipedia about an incident in Hong Kong in 2019, referred to as the Yuen Long attack.


It took place amid the Hong Kong protests, when around 100 white-shirted men, thought to have links with the pro-Beijing camp, attacked people at a transport station.

One of two pictures - a screen grab from a video that shows the white-shirted men walking with Hong Kong police - which initially appeared side-by-side on the page, was removed.

This was followed by at least 123 edits made to the text of the article within the space of two days in August 2020.

Words such as "rural factions" to describe the men would be edited to "terrorists". And "conflict" and "terror attack" would be interchanged to describe the situation.


The ban on pro-Beijing editors also stemmed from allegations of intimidation.

Messages on private chat channels shown to the BBC investigation suggested using Hong Kong's national security law against pro-democracy editors.

One message said: "Just report the Hong Kong users" and another: "…dox their ID and report it to the national security police…"

There are also accusations that the open nature of Wikipedia's system, whereby anyone can edit articles, was being abused.

"When I started doing my edits, pro-Beijing editors were ganging up to undo my edits," says Dave, another pro-democracy editor, living in Britain, who also spoke anonymously because of fears for his friends and family back in Hong Kong.

"When I took my concerns to a higher level, the pro-Beijing editors tried to use their numbers to crowd me out, so my voice didn't get heard," he said.

Meanwhile, Mr Yan says he's helping to build a new platform that will be representative of the Beijing point of view, albeit one that will be state-censored.

This will be in addition to Baidu and Qihu 360, which currently rival Wikipedia in China.

"People will have a better platform to write about encyclopaedia articles," he says.

But Jimmy Wales maintains that Wikipedia can still be a viable source of quality information on the country if people are given proper access.

"The biggest thing that's preventing mainland Chinese people from expressing the viewpoint of mainland Chinese people is the Chinese government, who don't allow them to edit Wikipedia.

"The idea that we are excluding China is absurd. We welcome with open arms editors from China. "


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