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Chinese Wikipedia and the battle against extradition from Hong Kong: From streets to Wikipedia - What are editors from Hong Kong facing?


Hong Kong has been in crisis over the past few months. The spark was a bill proposed by the Hong Kong government that would have allowed Beijing to extradite accused people from Hong Kong to mainland China, weakening the protections of Hong Kong's originally British system of justice. The huge protests that followed the introduction of the bill have raised the hopes and fears of Hongkongers, who have lived under the "one country, two systems" principle since the 1997 handover of power from the UK to China — a principle that China guaranteed it would retain until 2047.

A Wired UK article on August 2 documented how the Chinese-language Wikipedia interacted with the protests against the controversial bill and showed some of the infighting among editors at the Chinese Wikipedia. Wikipedia has been blocked throughout mainland China since April. This Signpost article updates the Wired report, and is written by members of the Hong Kong editing communities, with some sources provided by others in the Chinese community. However, due to the tense situation among Chinese Wikipedia editors, we cannot claim to represent the entire community.

The protests

March 31 protest

The protests in Hong Kong streets against the extradition bill started in late March. Originally, there were not many participants in the protests and street demonstrations. At that time, the numbers showed no signs of a mass movement with the potential to undermine Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong (designated as a "special administrative region").

A major escalation began with the June 9 million march. The suicide of Hong Konger Leung Ling-kit on June 15, protesting against the government, sparked a two million march one week later, prompting the government to announce it would stop further advancement of the bill.

June 12 protest

The protestors demanded the government completely withdraw the bill and to refer to the events of June 12 as a "protest" instead of a "riot". Weekly protests then followed, their locations moving from the typical route, from Victoria Park to the Central Government Complex, to multiple local and regional routes, such as those in Tuen Mun, Sha Tin, Tai Po, and Tsim Sha Tsui.

On July 21, members of triads, believed to be pro-Beijing, were observed in Yuen Long attacking protesters on the underground who were on their way home from the protest, and even passers-by who had not participated in the demonstrations. When Junius Ho, a member of Hong Kong's Legislative Council, was seen supporting the aggressive actions of the triad groups on site, it prompted another wave of mass protests, and led to the August 5 city-wide strike and the emergence of non-cooperation movements on public transport. According to police numbers, more than 1,000 cans of tear gas were used on that day alone. There was evidence that the police used expired canisters of tear gas, which are believed to be more dangerous.

The protests continue and are likely to carry on into September.

The effect on Wikipedia

Opinion from the pro-democracy camp about the police underestimating the number of demonstrators in their protests, with support from local commentators and evidence from other estimates, led to a Chinese Wikipedia page 毅進制 ("yijinecimal"), named for a slogan chanted by protestors that describes how police figures differ from the organizers’ figures for the number of participants. It originated as a joke user page but has since developed into a well-structured mainspace article.

Movement affiliates have expressed their concerns as well. Wikimedia Community User Group Hong Kong passed a resolution on May 16 and also multiple later statement updates requesting the government to temporarily withdraw the bill so as to properly consult concerned parties. Wikimedia Taiwan even requested conference organizers not to arrange Taiwan participants' travel through Hong Kong in their statement released on June 18.

Unlike articles on the umbrella movement and the related 2014 Hong Kong protests, the articles on the protests against the extradition bill have forked and developed into multiple independent pages in different language versions, particularly due to the nature of the protests, where it had evolved from waves of protests to different forms of demonstrations, such as strikes, surrounding points of interest, and blocking major road junctions. These articles also sparked fierce discussions within the Chinese Wikipedia, some discussing whether or not to keep the separate articles.

China and the Chinese Wikipedia

By April, the Chinese government, controlled by the Communist Party of China (CCP), had blocked all versions of Wikipedia and sister projects. Normal citizens in China, consequently, have had no access to Wikipedia as a source of information. Those who are politically motivated use VPNs (virtual private networks) to access the uncensored, or free, internet. At the same time, Beijing's Great Firewall inevitably redirects traffic to online encyclopedia sites such as the well-known Baidu Baike that has a strong pro-Beijing pro-CCP bias.

Apart from stopping the Chinese silent majority from obtaining uncensored information, the operation of the Great Firewall has the unintended result of attracting political fanatics, both pro- and anti-CCP, to edit pages such as Falun Gong, the Hong Kong Independence Movement, and the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests on the Chinese Wikipedia. Inevitably, this has included edits related to the current Hong Kong protests. This has led to long, fruitless discussions, personal attacks, and sockpuppetry. Socks are especially hard to detect due to the high proportion of editors who use VPNs to edit Wikipedia, and their knowledge of bypassing the CheckUser system.

Some editors bypass rules by manipulating CheckUser system loopholes or by other actions that would normally lead to an outright ban on the English Wikipedia and other major language versions. As these actions are not dealt with as they are on other Wikipedias, there has been a snowballing effect: pro-China editors have felt justified in bypassing other rules, and civility has begun to break down.

This has resulted in name-calling, the release of personal information on underage users, and even death threats. These inappropriate actions from some editors of the Chinese editorial community, believed to be closely connected to the Wikimedians of Mainland China working group, has itself discouraged other community members from contributing to Wikipedia, or contributing in community discussions.

Through meat-puppetry and misinformation, they have successfully silenced voices from the other side of the spectrum within the community, and tried to promote one ideology over another. These actions have led to the rise of biased administrators carrying out personal attacks. As de-adminship processes are impossible due to silenced voices, an unintended exaggeration of voices from one side has harmed not only the community itself but also the core values of civility within Wikipedia.

The fact that so many people in the Chinese-speaking community are citizens of the People’s Republic of China further weakens the already fragile self-correction mechanism within the Chinese Wikipedia.

Office actions at the Chinese Wikipedia

The WMF Office account has exercised its power several times during the past few years at the Chinese Wikipedia. WMFOffice banned User:守望者愛孟 in December 2017, removed all local CheckUsers in March 2018 and banned User:Galaxyharrylion in August 2018. These actions created serious backlashes locally, particularly among users with close connections with, or members of, the Wikimedians of Mainland China working group.

All of the banned users had a close connection to the Wikimedians of Mainland China working group, which was founded by those not supporting the WMF-recognized Wikimedia User Group China (WUGC). Unfortunately, WUGC’s offline activity is completely restrained by local laws in China, which has suppressed its offline activity since 2015, and let the working group gain momentum in offline activities.

What it reveals

The protests have revealed only a small part of the deeply rotten state of the Chinese Wikipedia. Office actions carried out against individuals on the site did not have much effect, since there were many more members, and even administrators prepared to selectively manipulate guidelines for ideological ends.

This situation has led to users violating policies and not receiving warnings or punishment and admins not explaining their actions when these actions created doubts within the Chinese community. Instead of developing a healthily growing community, the Chinese Wikipedia is now collapsing under the weight of factional infighting: the rule of law is fast disappearing from the site, and is significantly compromising the whole purpose of constructing a free and open encyclopedia.