Attention – Due To Allegations of Plagiarism, This Article Is Highly Suspect 

Just who was Mao Zedong? According to the English-language version of Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopaedia, he was a victorious military and political leader who founded China’s modern Communist state. He was also a man many saw as “a mass murderer, holding his leadership accountable for the deaths of tens of millions of innocent Chinese.”Switch to Wikipedia in Chinese, and one discovers a very different man. There, Mao Zedong’s reputation is unsullied by any mention of a death toll in the great purges of the 1950s and 1960s, or for what many historians call the greatest famine in human history. In recent weeks, the Chinese government has demonstrated its hostility toward the emergence of a credible source of reference material that escapes its control by frequently blocking access to Wikipedia, whose Chinese version, though still far smaller than its English-language counterpart, is growing by leaps and bounds. But on sensitive questions of China’s modern history or on hot-button issues, the Chinese version diverges so dramatically from its  English counterpart that it sometimes reads as if it were approved by the censors themselves.

This gulf in information and perspective comes across powerfully in the entry on Mao, which is consistently one of the most frequently searched and edited topics in the Chinese version, and in the entry on historical watersheds, like the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Chinese Wikipedia users and critics say that the differences highlight the resilience here of a system of information control whose reach goes well beyond simple censorship.

In each language, Wikipedia is collaboratively written and edited by online enthusiasts, and contributors to the Chinese-language site explain the differences in content by citing the powerful influence of Chinese education, which often provides a neatly sanitised national perspective on sensitive aspects of the country’s past. This parochialism is reinforced by the blocking of foreign websites, and by the conformism of the media. Alternative viewpoints are sometimes available, but usually only to a restricted circle of people who have the means and determination to seek them out.

For some, the Chinese version of Wikipedia was intended as just such a resource, but its tame approach to sensitive topics has sparked a fierce debate in the world of online mavens over its objectivity and thoroughness.  In a recent discussion on the encyclopaedia’s website about the Mao legacy, a user with the online name Manchurian Tiger wrote, “If anyone can prove that Mao’s political movements didn’t kill so many people, I’m willing to delete the wording that ‘millions of people were killed.’” Rather than contribute to encyclopaedias, those who wish to pay tribute to Mao, he added, should “go to his mausoleum.”

Another user replied angrily: “If you want to release your emotions, use a bulletin board. Wikipedia is not your toilet.” In the end, the entry on Mao included no death toll from either famine or political purges. Indeed, in its present form, the Chinese Wikipedia introduction to Mao Zedong could hardly be more anodyne: “One of the main founders and leaders of the Communist Party of China, the People’s Liberation Army and the People’s Republic of China,” it reads.

Shantanu Dutta blogs at www.shantanudutta.sulekha.com

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