“Hong Kong is not a part of China. Hong Kong is not China,” a defiant Chinese Wikipedia user from Hong Kong wrote on the main Wikipedia article for the Hong Kong Extradition Bill. Over the last two months, as protesters took to the streets in Hong Kong to demonstrate against the bill, a small army of pro-democracy Wikipedians were waging a battle of their own on the Chinese-language version of the online encyclopedia.
“In terms of jurisprudence, China is not a foreign country to Hong Kong,” a user called Dance Moon Scholar argued. “Hong Kong is not China,” a local user wrote in response – to which a pro-China editor countered: “Hong Kong is not China, it’s only a part of China.”
There are about 100 active Chinese Wikipedia editors in Hong Kong, and for them, the city-state’s battle to maintain its autonomy is also being fought on Wikipedia. The law – which would have allowed the Beijing-supported local government to extradite citizens and foreigners to mainland China – has galvanized a massive protest movement in Hong Kong. On the Chinese version of Wikipedia, the debates over edits quickly transformed into wars of words over fundamental political issues.
“From the perspective of judicial and administrative power, mainland China and Hong Kong are different places,” contended another user in the discussion about the bill’s article, adducing that “the application of this amendment is only in Hong Kong.”
Even technicalities like the title of a section have proved contentious: The decision to detail China’s response to the protest under the title of “international reactions” – the implication being that China is a foreign power – was deemed “inappropriate” by a mainland user called Chan9487, who suggested renaming the section “Responses outside of Hong Kong,” sparking a debate about the international community’s recognition of Hong Kong’s autonomy.
The article about the bill was just one of many protest-related pages on Chinese Wikipedia that morphed into political forums and clocked the highest number of edits and debates on their “talk pages” – the spaces where editors discuss Wikipedia articles – during June and July. While English Wikipedia made do with one article about the protest movement and one about the bill, on Chinese Wikipedia editors rushed to open articles for each and every protest as it occurred, creating a running timeline of the movement’s development.
“The prelude [to the protest] was during the June 9th march, followed by the June 16th march, the June 21st occupation of police headquarters, the July 1st take over of the Legislative Council and the July 7th march,” explains a special template created by local Wikipedians to allow users to easily navigate the various protest pages.
The first article covered the June 9 protest, and it was actually started a week and a half before the event, almost as a call to arms to join the “300,000 citizens expected to participate.” After the protest itself took place and made headlines around the world, the page shifted to outlining, almost minute-by-minute, the birth of the protest movement that would dominate the discourse on Chinese Wikipedia for the weeks to come.
Details ranging from the number of participants (over a million if you ask the organisers, barely 240,000 if according to the police) to whether tear gas was used or not (there were some injuries from smoke inhalation but the police claim no smoke bombs were used) were debated extensively, turning the page into one of the most contested articles in Chinese Wikipedia during the past weeks. Alongside the articles for the protest on June 16 and finally the July 1 takeover of the parliament building, it documents in painstaking and at times graphic details the brutal police crackdown.
“Police say it was rubber bullets, not plastic bullets,” an editor noted in the article for the protest that took place on June 12. In another debate, a pro-China user tried to argue that the line, “The police ‘inappropriately’ used violence” was “provocative” and unbefitting of an encyclopedia. They claimed that the wording was based on opinionated media (i.e., outlets not aligned with Beijing) and not facts. “The police’s improper use of violence and provocative attitudes are entirely objective facts,” a local editor retorted.
According to Calida Chu, a prominent Wikipedian from Hong Kong, the “writing style shows that those articles are written by protestors.” A local journalist concurs and notes the usage of terms like “protest”, “revolution” and “Reclaim Hong Kong” in describing the events, terminology he says is used almost exclusively by demonstrators and their supporters.
This is in sharp contrast to how the previous rounds of protests were documented on Wikipedia. For example, the pro-democracy protests that swept Hong Kong in 2010, in the wake of the arrest of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo have no Chinese Wikipedia article at all; the 2014 protests known as the “Umbrella Revolution” have only one. The so-called Umbrella Movement that spearheaded them has a very detailed article in Cantonese, the local language spoken in Hong Kong, but the simplified Chinese version from that period is very short. This is an indication of the power relationship within Chinese Wikipedia at the time, when Wikipedia was still accessible in mainland China, thus allowing for a stronger presence of pro-Beijing editors. As a result, Hongkongers limited themselves to the less popular Cantonese version.
That changed after June 2015. Around that time, Beijing issued a full block of Chinese Wikipedia. Wikipedia has been intermittently blocked in mainland China since roughly 2004, usually ahead of the April anniversaries for the Tiananmen Square protests. However, Wikipedia’s shift to HTTPS encryption in 2015 no longer allowed the Chinese to selectively censor specific articles, leading first to a blanket ban of the Chinese version, followed this April by a ban on Wikipedia in all languages.
Over two dozen Chinese Wikipedia editors declined to be interviewed for this story, but according to eight local editors who did agree to talk, the ban has given dissenters the upper hand. “Most of the Hong Kong editors fall into either pro-democracy camp or [pro-Hong Kong] localist camp supporters. Very few of them support the current [Hong Kong] government, or Beijing in general,” says a local Wikimedia volunteer with knowledge of the situation. In fact, though only 100 of Chinese Wikipedia editors come from Hong Kong, Hongkongers make up about 18.8 per cent of Chinese Wikipedia’s readers.
“Chinese Wikipedians can be generally divided in two: those who follow the state line closely, and those who support the political dissidents. There are few editors from China who have a neutral or moderate political stance,” the volunteer says, adding that, since the ban, “traffic originating from Hong Kong and Taiwan combined has [gained] a slight majority. Few active Wikipedians from these two regions have a pro-China stance.”
According to WhisperToMe, a prominent local Wikipedian who asked not to be identified by their real name, “there are Mainland editors able to access the site by circumventing the censorship” with the use of VPNs. “However, those in the mainland who do edit don’t write about Chinese politics, knowing the Chinese central government, it’ll be much easier for them to add content favoring the Chinese government than content not doing so.”
Of course, there are exceptions. A page about Marco Leung Ling-kit, a protester who died during the June 15 protests, was created only to be deleted shortly after. “Some editors (mainly from China) argued that the death is of short-term interest only, and hence the article should be merged with the main article describing the whole protest,” another Hong Kong editor says.
And the pro-democracy camps sometimes faces internal opposition. For example, a user called Masdggg posted a banner on his personal page on Chinese Wikipedia, saying: “I strongly support the [Hong Kong] government to amend the Extradition Law. Hong Kong can’t become a haven for fugitives. I strongly oppose the ‘Anti-Extradition protests’ and call for its immediate termination.”
For most Wikipedians in Hong Kong, the battle for democracy is not just about the future of their city, but their right to keep accessing Wikipedia freely. The prospect of falling within China’s “Great Firewall” of internet censorship “has brought underlying fear” at the local community’s ability to continue to provide Hong Kong “unlimited access of free knowledge,” according to the official Hong Kong Wikimedia User Group. In a statement from May they warned that China “engages in activities against access to Wikipedia” and voiced “dire concern of the silencing effect” the extradition bill may bring.
Their fear is not unfounded. Over the past few years, the Chinese government has not only banned Wikipedia but also encouraged the creation of alternative wikis and online encyclopedias to fill the void. While traffic to Wikipedia from China has dropped, the prominence of alternative outlets pushing out the government’s line – such as the Chinese-language encyclopedia Baidu Baike – has soared, creating a situation in which almost all Chinese speakers are cut off from the encyclopedic battles raging in Chinese and get their information almost completely from state-sanctioned media. Baidu Baike’s article on the extradition bill only references a single article, from a mainland China-based news source and fails to note the protests altogether. “In terms of encyclopedia like Baidu Baike, they usually follow the (PRC) state line,” says Calida Chu.
“Wikipedia has effectively become one of the alternate sources that people in China used to find out more about the protests,” explains the Chinese Wikipedia administrator. Nonetheless, all the editors that agreed to speak concede that currently, Wikipedia and its affiliates, in both English and Chinese, are not really part of the discourse in the mainland, leaving most Chinese almost completely cut off from the wider world. A similar fate might befall Hongkongers should they fail in their struggle for democracy.
More great stories from WIRED
🖼️ How to harness Google Photos to your messy pictures
😡 Heatwaves make people more violent, angry and grumpy
🚬 England has an ambitious plan to eradicate smoking by 2030
🕵🏿 It’s time you ditched Chrome for a privacy-first web browser
🎉 A vaccine for Alzheimer’s is on the verge of reality
📧 Get the best tech deals and gadget news in your inbox