Twofish's Blog

November 30, 2006

More on the New York Times article

Filed under: china, wikipedia — twofish @ 5:37 am

First, some ground rules. I make it a policy never to post people identities without their permission, nor will I post private e-mail that is written to me without permission. I will however post my statements if I think they are interesting, and I also will post things that are said in a public forum. Also whenever I summarize or cite someone, I do try to give people a “right of reply” so that they can agree/disagree whether the summary is fair and accurate.

With respect to the Mao article, the NYT just got the history wrong, and I think the article is an example of very superficial journalism. What happened with the English wikipedia (and I was there and you can look at the logs) was that after the book “Mao: The Untold Story” was published, a wikipedia user insisted on putting the millions of deaths line in the summary of Mao’s life. This prompted a reaction from the Maoists online, and a set of negotiations was taken that produced a very carefully balanced paragraph that everyone could live with.

In the Chinese wikipedia that series of events just never happened, and so that carefully constructed paragraph was not written. No one was insisting that that line about millions of deaths was put in, and at the same time there wasn’t any counterreaction because there are very few Chinese speakers who are willing to undergo an edit war to say something nice about Mao (whereas in English, there are some revolutionary Maoists). What is the case among Chinese speakers is that I get the sense that there is a much less varied range of opinions (fewer people think that he was an insane homocidal maniac, but fewer people are also willing to argue that his later years were correct), but that the average is about the same as with English speakers.

When I’ve edited the English wikipedia Mao page, my main pet peeve has been to try to reverse the notion that the Chinese government is positive about Mao. The official view of history concerning Mao is actually rather complex, and there are some very strong motivations and issues that go into making up the history, and I’ve put some work into explaining these motivations and issues. One good thing about wikipedia is that it lets you go passed the “pro-X” or “anti-X” labels that are just killing political discourse.

Now I did get a message from the NYT which was e-mailed to me and posted onto my personal page (and since it was posted, I can reproduce it with personal identity removed).

Hi, this is ***** from The New York Times Shanghai Bureau. We’re writing a story about Wikipedia and by comparing both of its Chinese and English version we found some very interesting things. We’d like to interview wikipedians having frequent visits to both versions and to get their impression and comments on the phenomenon. Is there any chance we could get in touch with you by phone or email? My email address is ******* Hope to hear from you soon. Thanks!

Here is my reply:

If possible I’d rather do the conversation via e-mail. Also, after the
article has been published, I’d like permission to post the entire transcript
of the conversation on my blog without identifying your organization.

As far as differences in English and Chinese wikipedia, I’ve found two major

1) you have major differences due to the distribution of views. What is an
infrequent crackpot viewpoint among English speakers, could be an important
minority viewpoint or even the majority viewpoint among Chinese speakers.

2) English encyclopedias focus on providing contextualized summary
information. Whereas Chinese encyclopedias focus on providing almanac
information such as dates and places. I have some speculation about why that
is, but its merely speculation that could be very incorrect.

Also on an other issue, I’ve been trying to get the following two points
across to the Chinese authorities

1) Blocking wikipedia skews the contents away from views which are favorable
to the Chinese authorities, because it discourages people who are favorable
to the government from participating.

2) Blocking wikipedia harms the cause of national reunification. What
wikipedia provides is a forum for Chinese speakers from both the Mainland,
Taiwan, Hong Kong, and overseas Chinese to jointly create a description of
the world, and having these diverse groups working on a single project
promotes national unification.

I should point out that my background is that of an American-born Chinese, and
I’ve found wikipedia to be useful in strengthening a sense of national
identity of being part of the Chinese community. The nation-state was
created by the railroad and the telegraph, and wikipedia and the internet is
going to have profound political consequences in the 21st century. My point
is that these effects are largely favorable to the Chinese government in some
ways, and that it is in their interest to embrace the technology.

Personally, I thought that the resulting article was extremely superficial since it contained very little insight or depth. In order to do an in-depth analysis of the difference in one article would take a week, and to do a fair as systematic comparison of Chinese and English wikipedia would be a task worthy of a masters dissertation and to go into the political and social background of these differences would be a doctoral dissertation.

If you have one week and a deadline, the most you can do is not to be misleading, and I thought that the NYT article was a very bad example of taking some isolated facts and putting it into a frame that was very misleading. It’s the Chinese government is surpressing the truth and the poor Chinese are brainwashed by propaganda notion. The worst part of is that they could have done a much better job if they had an internet link to the primary source. Just reading the English article on Mao Zedong and the discussion would tell most people that the article is incomplete.

Now if this were a wiki article, what I’d do is to go into the article, add some verified tags, and change it. The writer would note their objections, and I’d note mine. I’d insist that the article note that Chinese article removed both positive and negative descriptions of Mao. I’d also include some information about the history that I remember, and since my memory is fuzzy, other people involved would include there’s. Since space is not a premium, I’d insist that the Chinese article be translated in full in English, the English into Chinese and a side-by-side comparison be available, and I’m sure that if you have thousands of eyes looking the comparison, people would spot some interesting and subtle things.

I suspect that doing things the wiki way would end up with a better much article.

Anyway in the interest of doing something constructive I sent the following e-mail

You might be interested in two notes that I made about the article that came
out this morning.


Those bypass the great firewall.  I do apologize if I seem a little harsh, but
I do think that the article is missing some details that are extremely
important.  As always I do sympathize with the difficulties that reporters
face in generating articles with time and space constraints, but I do feel
that the article reinforces some simplistic stereotypes rather than provide
more insight into the complexities of a situation.

Please do feel free to response on the blog if you think my opinions are
inaccurate or unfair.  Also while, I will keep confidentiality in personal
e-mail unless otherwise requested, I would much rather you give me permission
to post e-mail with personal information removed.


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