China is planning an ambitious online resource to rival Wikipedia. The inaugural digital version of the Chinese Encyclopaedia will, in effect, be the country’s first online book of “everything.”
But free speech activists say that the new digital compendium is bound to distort or omit certain topics for political purposes.
The digital project is the third edition of the Chinese Encyclopaedia, and will enlist 20,000 scholars from tertiary institutions to write, reports the South China Morning Post.
It’s expected to be the same size as the Chinese-language version of Wikipedia, and twice as long as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, with more than 30,000 entries, each roughly 1,000 words long. The encyclopaedia will go online in 2018.
But unlike Wikipedia, which is open to the masses to write, the Chinese Encyclopaedia is only to be written by the appointed scholars.
This is problematic, say critics.
“Wikipedia welcomes all users to challenge and edit the information of each entry,” Patrick Poon, China researcher at Amnesty International, told Mashable.
That only selected scholars can edit entries raises questions of credibility, he said.
“Building this relatively closed encyclopaedia, in addition to the Great Firewall, further [deprives] Chinese people of the freedom of access to information,” he said.
“Creating a parallel digital world.”
Wikipedia is generally accessible through China’s firewall, which blocks sites that the government has deemed objectionable. But articles related to politically-charged issues like the or its president, , are blocked.
“It’s an example of China’s attempts to depict its own version of history of events, in particular those [that] happened in contemporary China,” Poon, who’s based in Hong Kong, said.
The country has a long history of manipulating information to guide public opinion in its favor, echoed Maya Wang, a Hong-Kong based China researcher with Human Rights Watch.
“[Making an online encyclopaedia] is consistent with the Chinese government’s practice of creating a parallel digital world in which censored information and platforms are allowed to thrive while their free counterparts are banned,” said Wang.
Scholars working on the new resource defended its place as a tool.
The Chinese Encyclopaedia is a “Great Wall of culture”, said Yang Muzhi, its editor-in-chief, at a meeting for senior scientists in the Chinese Academy of Sciences in April.
“It’s a tool for the general reader to learn every day, and it’s deeply influential,” Yang added.
“The circumstances we’re in dictate that China must write its own encyclopaedia, and to come from behind, to overtake others, we need to understand the complexities of compiling our own encyclopaedia.”
Other scholars on the editorial team want the focus to be on the needs of the 21st century.
“I think [the encyclopaedia] needs to have a framework that emphasises globalisation, democracy, and diversity,” U.S.-based historian Huang Annian, who has been invited to work on the encyclopaedia, wrote.
“We should have a spirit of respecting history and facing the future.”