Last week, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales had a meeting with Cai Mingzhao, Vice Director of China's State Council Information Office - the government body whose "Internet Management Division" is in charge of censoring online content. They discussed Jimmy's concerns about censorship. No deals or agreements were made, but Jimmy tells me that the meeting has opened a channel of communication and dialogue between the Wikipedia community and the Chinese government.
Many Chinese wikipedians and bloggers first found out about the meeting from the State Council Information Office's own website, which posted the picture above along with a brief text that said only: "On the afternoon of September 25th, the State Council Information Office Vice Director Cai Mingzhao received the founder of the American Wikipedia, Mr. Jimmy Wales. Liu Zhengrong of the Fifth Division and others also accompanied the meeting." (The Fifth Division is in charge of the Internet. Liu famously told the world in 2006 that Chinese Internet censorship is no different than what goes on in the West and most other countries.)
The official website gave no further information about what was discussed. IT blogger Keso - on his blogspot blog but not on his main China-hosted blog - remarked: "In this kind of meeting, it's unclear what Cai Mingzhao is smiling at Wales about, it must have been interesting." I saw Jimmy on Saturday at the World Economic Forum meeting in Tianjin. (Jimmy is one of the WEF's Young Global Leaders.) I told him that news of his meeting was on the Internet and that people were starting to wonder what was up. He was surprised, because he said his interlocutors had indicated they didn't want the meeting to be public.
Since 2005 Wikipedia - both Chinese and English - has been blocked in China, but it was unblocked in the run-up to the Olympics, along with a number of other overseas websites. At last year's Wikimania meeting in Taipei, Jimmy was adamant in stating that neither Wikipedia nor his company, Wikia, will ever agree to censor content at the request of Chinese authorities. Google's decision to offer a censored search engine in China, he said last year, was "a bad business decision for Google...When there is a sufficient amount of change that the Great Firewall is torn down, the Chinese people will appreciate that Wikipedia stood its moral ground."
Jimmy told me last Saturday that the State Council meeting had been a "get to know each other" kind of conversation. He raised concerns about the blockage of Wikipedia, welcomed its unblocking, and expressed the hope that it would remain unblocked.
They did not discuss the fact that the Great Firewall is getting more sophisticated: it doesn't need to block whole websites anymore, anyway. It can just block individual pages or sections as needed. While China is no longer blocking all of Wikipedia, individual pages on the Chinese website continue to be blocked, in my own experience. For example: you can access the Chinese Wikipedia page for "Tiananmen Square" from at least some ISP's in mainland China, but when I tried to access the page for "June 4th Incident" from Beijing on Sunday, I got an error message.
Since my conversation with Jimmy about his meeting was in a casual social context and I didn't get a chance to take notes, I thought it best to e-mail him to re-confirm some things before blogging about it. Here is the full text of our exchange:
MacKinnon: Am I correct in understanding that you didn't reach any specific agreement with Cai Mingzhao or other State Council people?
Wales: That's right. It was a friendly meeting to get to know each other a bit.
MacKinnon: I understand he said he'd like the state council to be able to communicate with you about concerns they have in the future about content appearing on Wikipedia. Is that correct?
Wales: Yes. The idea is to open up lines of communication.MacKinnon: Am I also correct in understanding that you are open to making changes if they point out content that does not comply with NPOV ["neutral point of view"] standards?
Wales: Yes, the same as with such concerns from anyone. If content is not in keeping with our policies, we appreciate people pointing it out to us.MacKinnon: I understand that in your conversation with Cai, you welcomed the unblocking of Wikipedia in China and said you hoped it would stay that way, correct?
Wales: I mentioned that there have been problems of access in the past, though things are currently good, and we hope that things will remain good going forward.MacKinnon: Did you raise any concerns about the fact that, while the English and Chinese sites as a whole are unblocked, individual pages (for instance, pages about Falun Gong or the Tiananmen Crackdown) continue to be blocked?
Wales: Actually, in English, I was able to access those pages and similar ones. I am unsure about the exact current situation with respect to what pages are being filtered. Since I wasn't sure of the exact details, and just due to the way the conversation went (more high level than about specific details), I didn't raise this question.MacKinnon: Did you say that you want those pages to be unblocked? Or are you cool with the fact that a few politically sensitive pages are blocked as long as most of Wikipedia is unblocked?
Wales: We didn't discuss it. But, I am not cool with any censorship of Wikipedia. However, I do think it is much better for a few politically sensitive pages to be blocked than for everything to be blocked. And we will never cooperate with any blocking or censorship of neutral encyclopedic content.MacKinnon: What are the next steps? Did either side designate points of contact for further discussions?
Wales: We will follow up by email with them to designate points of contact, and I am going to try to visit again in a few months time, perhaps to visit with more direct implementors.
If Wikipedia gets the Chinese government to engage in an open and transparent discussion with its community about whether certain content is or isn't adhering to "neutral point of view" standards and whether it should be deleted or changed, that would be unprecedented. As a member of the Wikimedia advisory board, I hope and expect that Wikipedia will not engage in an un-transparent manner with any government.
Will China change Wikipedia or will Wikipedia change China? Or will they both change each other? So far, Western Internet companies working in China, and engaging with Chinese regulators, have inevitably seen themselves changed by the experience. Will a non-profit grassroots citizen media organization be able to maintain a higher moral ground and get Chinese government officials to engage in a public discussion about censorship? Or will the State Council, by pressuring local Wikipedians who are vulnerable to state subversion and state secrets laws, find ways to bend Wikipedia subtly to its will?