Internet & Tech

Great Wall of culture

China’s new online encyclopaedia wants to dethrone Wikipedia


Yang Muzhi: man with a plan

Starting out in Edinburgh in 1768, the Encyclopaedia Britannica is the world’s oldest English-language encyclopaedia still in production. But there hasn’t been a new print version of the 38-volume tome since 2010, and in 2014 the company announced that it was formally ceasing print runs, focusing instead on its online publication.

The Encyclopaedia of China is going digital as well. In order to produce the third version – online and free – of the mammoth Chinese-language encyclopaedia, the Chinese government has hired about 20,000 scholars to work on 300,000 articles, each roughly 1,000 words in length. That will make the final publication twice the size of the current Encyclopaedia Britannica, and roughly the same size as the Chinese-language content on Wikipedia.

However, according to the project’s editor-in-chief Yang Muzhi, the plan is not to match Wikipedia in size or function but rather to “surpass” it, as he thinks the public should be “wary” of the credibility of some Wikipedia entries. Another senior editor, Jiang Lijun, agreed: “There is Chinese content on Wikipedia too, but sometimes it is not as accurate as it could be.”

The key difference between the Encyclopaedia of China and Wikipedia is that the latter is open to the public for editing, whereas the Chinese project will submit to an official editorial process, taking care of those “inaccuracies”.

Zhang Baichun, who will be in charge of editing the “history of science and technology” section, explained that the Chinese Academy of Science will first hold meetings with academics to determine members of an “authoritative committee”, which will in turn select appropriate authors to work on each subject. The drafts will then be reviewed by a section editor and finally by the committee.

“If there is a difference of opinion, all deputy and chief editors will participate in the discussion and figure it out together,” Zhang said. “We will reason things out with the author until we reach an agreement, or change the author.”

This strict regimen has left freedom of information groups concerned that it might further restrict the public’s access to independent material. Patrick Poon, a researcher with Amnesty International, argues: “Compiling this sort of closed encyclopaedia, in addition to the pre-existing Great Firewall of China, further deprives the Chinese people of their freedom to access information.”

It was Yang Muzhi himself who described the Encyclopaedia of China as “not a book, but a Great Wall of culture” – leading some pundits to believe it will serve the same ringfencing function as the Great Firewall, or indeed the Great Wall itself.

Yang hasn’t shied away from the suggestion, telling the Chinese Academy of Sciences that the goal of the compendium was to “guide and lead the public and society”. Thus once the book is launched next year, it might become harder for Chinese citizens to access pre-existing, publicly-edited alternatives such as Baidu Baike (in yet another blow for the local internet giant) or Wikipedia, which already faces censorship on sensitive topics.

The Encyclopaedia of China is no stranger to censorship either. Next year’s online publication will in fact be the third edition of the resource, which has its origins in the late 1970s. Chinese officials began to work on its first edition after the Cultural Revolution. According to the South China Morning Post, hundreds of scholars who had suffered in the anti-intellectual movements of the previous decade collaborated to produce the material for the book, hoping that it would warn citizens of the mistakes of the past and prevent disasters like the Cultural Revolution from happening again.

It took 15 years to compile that first edition, which ran to 74 volumes and 125 million Chinese characters. It was published in 1993, but it also became politicised: the government censored the content, removing anything deemed too provocative, effectively killing the intent of many of its authors.

One of the academics invited to edit the upcoming third version, Huang Annian, declined the invitation, citing the experience of past editions. In an email to the editorial board he wrote that the “old political structure” needs to be thrown out and that the new edition should “adapt to the tide of the 21st century, respect the past and face the future”

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.