On June 12, 2015, Wikimedia announced that they would start the process of fully encrypting Wikipedia for users everywhere in the world. They expect that the process will be completed before the end of this month. Coincidentally, on May 19, 2015 both the encrypted and unencrypted Chinese-language versions of Wikipedia were blocked in China, ending what has been a complicated censorship situation for the world's most important online resource.
There was a time that when blocking access to one of the world's top ten most visited sites would raise alarm bells and draw scorns of criticism. But with the blocking of Wikipedia, that attention seems to have dissipated. While it is true that Wikipedia has been blocked and unblocked before, it is unlikely that the Chinese language site will be unblocked again. Furthermore, given the current environment in China, it is likely that all language versions of Wikipedia sites will soon be blocked in China.
There is a history to this story and other foreign internet properties that are looking to the China market should take note.
Foreign companies that "re-entered" the China market in the early 90s, after the June, 1989 Tiananmen incident had slipped from the headlines, often faced criticism for their decision to return so soon. But these companies were taking a long-term view on China and could see that the market for their goods and services and the lure of affordable production costs was too great to keep them away.
In response to the criticism, most companies repeated the same boilerplate mantras - "Engagement with China will be more effective than isolationism." "Over time, China will change and will gradually open up." "We have to enter the China market on China's terms."
It's been 26 years since the night of June 4 and while there has been much positive change for the average Chinese citizen, many discussions are still taboo. What's more, we have not seen an "opening up" when it comes to freedom of access to information. The numbers of websites that are being blocked continues to increase. Even websites that we have long felt were too important to block have been rendered inaccessible from China. Domestic censorship controls have silenced Chinese-language discussions about "sensitive" topics. The authorities have even extended these measures beyond China's borders.
Since May, 2014, when Google was outright blocked, we have seen an unprecedented ramping up of internet controls in China. Web and mobile properties like Line, KaoKao Talk, Flickr and Microsoft One Drive have joined Facebook, Twitter and YouTube on the blocked list. Large scale man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks have been launched on Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and Apple, putting sensitive user information at risk. There has been an intense crackdown on VPNs (virtual private networks) used to circumvent the great firewall, making it increasingly difficult even for companies to access the most basic and essential online services. The Chinese authorities have even developed and deployed a cyber weapon that can bring down websites outside of China, even if their citizens are unable to access them in the first place.
Wikipedia is just the latest nail in the internet freedom coffin and it certainly will not be the last. Wikipedia thought that by engaging with China, the authorities would gradually open up. They thought that by allowing the Chinese authorities to censor as much information as they wanted, that eventually they would relinquish control. They thought that for those in China, having access to some Wikipedia pages was better than having access to none.
But what actually happened was that the authorities effectively neutered Wikipedia, made it uninteresting to the average netizen with onerous censorship controls. Our tests show that of the 1200 Chinese language Wikipedia pages we monitor, the authorities have blocked access to 228 of them. Furthermore, Baidu's Baike actually has more content that the censored Chinese Wikipedia. Censorship destroyed what was unique about the Wikipedia offering. And now the site is blocked and it's like if a tree fell in the forest and there was nobody there to hear it.
While we have been critical of the organization's approach to China in the past, we stand with them in mourning the end of Wikipedia in China, as do many in academia who use the encyclopedia on a daily basis and rely on it for their studies.
The Chinese strategy on information control is working and is effective. But we hope that foreign firms will take notice of this episode (including you, LinkedIn) and plan their market strategy accordingly. In 2013, we felt that sites like Wikipedia and Google were too important to block. While this may have been true before Xi Jinping took power, this is no longer the case. We have been proven very wrong by the authorities. They have shown that they will not hesitate to block any website, under any conditions. As Jimmy Wales said in 2004 after Wikipedia was blocked for the first time in China:
It's a huge embarrassment for the censors if they block Wikipedia, because we are none of the things that they claim to want to censor. Censoring Wikipedia is an admission that it is unbiased factual information itself that frightens you. We are not political propaganda, we are not online gambling, we are not porn. We are an encyclopedia.
If the censors were ever embarrassed, they certainly are no longer. With the support of Xi Jinping, they are emboldened. And we expect to see the authorities take further steps to crack down on any website, mobile app or circumvention tool that allows Chinese citizens to freely access information. Rest in peace, Wikipedia. While we may have had our issues while you were around, we are going to miss you now that you are gone.
The GreatFire website provides tests to check the current availability of a website within China. The test links below show tests for Wikipedia in Chinese and English, for the encrypted and unencrypted sites.
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