Jimmy Wales on ‘The Great Firewall’

Jimmy Wales, the creator of Wikipedia, the world’s largest encyclopaedia and perhaps the most potent symbol of an open and free Internet, has turned his sights on China.

The People’s Republic has undergone great transition over the past decade, with a loosening of the economy that has seen global companies pour in, including those at the forefront of information technology.

However, the Chinese political system still rests on orthodoxies of control, fear and a restriction of information. That’s not to say China isn’t changing, with more than 475 million of the country’s 1.3 billion citizens now online. Mandarin is currently the second most popular language on the web behind English.

Yet for some, including the Wikipedia-founder, change isn’t coming quickly enough, so much so that the he recently featured in the first episode of Amnesty TV, an online magazine show, talking about internet freedom, with particular reference the situation in China.

As a passionate advocate for the free access to information, Wales believes people should be in control of the content they view. This is not the case for a third of the global population, with regimes as disparate as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Burma, North Korea, Syria, Vietnam and China all practising some form of online censorship.

“China now has the largest number of users of the Internet of any country,” Wales tells The Huffington Post UK. “It also has the most extensive program of censorship of basic political information of any country. The web can help change that.

“The Internet has already played a role in opening up repressive political systems and it will continue to do so. All around the world, authoritarian governments are coming to the realisation that old methods of information suppression are no longer effective, and simply serve to breed resentment which will result in uprisings.”

Currently Wikipedia, Facebook and Twitter remain blocked in China, while Google, who originally worked within Chinese restrictions, censoring what the regime deemed politically sensitive information, has now pulled out completely.

“I think it’s important that companies do not give in to demands of censorship from regimes,” says Wales. “It goes against the foundation of what the Internet is – free access to information.”

The counter argument runs that offering people access to some information, albeit restricted, is better than offering them no information at all.

“That’s the argument Google made and I respect that,” he responds. “I think that reasonable people can differ on tactics. I did not agree with Google’s decision to go into China, but I did respect that they were aware that it was a difficult decision, and that they went into China with a set of principles to try to be a positive influence. And I applauded when they decided that the situation there was no longer worthwhile and decided to pull out.”

I put it to Wales that not everyone sees the net as only a force for good. Recently in the UK, some politicians blamed online services (BlackBerry Messenger and Text) for facilitating the riots and disturbances in London and elsewhere.

“The web is a tool, and like all human tools they can be used for good or ill,” he says. “There’s nothing particular exciting or interesting in noticing that. But we can say without reservation that the Internet has been overwhelmingly a force for good.

“I’m not a web utopian,” he continues, “but I think we did see positive responses. While a tiny handful of people may have posted messages planning or encouraging violence, we know that literally thousands of people joined forces to help with the cleanup efforts, and thousands more have joined efforts to identify the criminals and bring them to justice.

“The idea that social networks were used by rioters to plan violence and destruction is just, quite frankly, silly nonsense. You might as well blame the telephone … or language itself.”

Despite his success, Wales remains committed to his central project, the development and evolution of the encyclopaedia that has become a one of the most frequently accessed resources on the web.

“I’m still involved in the company on a day-to-day level,” he says, “especially talking to the community about moving forward with editorial policy. The most important think to know about Wikipedia in the next five to 10 years is that we will continue our strong growth in the languages of the developing world, as we move ever closer to realising my original vision of a free encyclopaedia for every single person on the planet in their own language.”

This first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

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Refitted Chinese carrier sends shot across the bows

China has begun sea trials of its latest piece of military hardware, a refitted Soviet aircraft carrier that has the potential to drastically alter the dynamics of power in the region.

The move, part of a huge naval modernisation programme undertaken by Beijing, which already includes submarines, destroyers and an anti-ship missile system, could lead to increased tension in a locality already taut from territorial disputes.

Named by the Chinese as the Shi Lang, the ship, originally called The Varyag, was built by the Soviet Navy in the late Eighties. After the fall of the Soviet Union, China purchased the vessel for $20 million from Ukraine under the pretence of turning it into a floating theme park. Having been towed through the Bosphorus, the ship finally reaching port in Dalian where the People’s Liberation Army Navy discreetly began a refit.

Nearly a decade later and the Shi Lang has put to sea, a move signalling a dramatic expansion of China’s military projection with implications for the region that could prove as sizable as the ship’s gargantuan hull.

For Eric Grove, Professor of Naval History at the University of Salford, the deployment of the Shi Lang reinforces the belief that the seas around China represent one of the globe’s major potential flashpoints, suggesting that the carrier could well push the new superpower closer to a direct confrontation with the other navies in the region, namely Japan, India and South Korea.

There is also the potential for a fracas with the biggest naval player in Asia, the US Navy, which keeps a constant regional presence thanks to its nuclear powered super carrier, the USS George Washington, based in Japan.

Speaking to The Huffington Post, he said: “There’s an interesting multi-polar balance emerging, with China, Japan, South Korea and India all trying to exert influence in the region. India in particular is going to be looking very closely at this development as India has a carrier programme of its own.”

“This could be the beginning of a naval race between China and India as both have ambitions and both have perceived interest which overlap in the Indian Ocean, especially given China’s interest in exploiting the economic resources of Africa.”

The South Korean Navy is also currently talking about a carrier programme, while the Japanese are building huge destroyers with the potential to land fixed wing aircraft. However it is Taiwan that perhaps has most to fear, the tiny island’s sovereignty disputed by the People’s Republic, who see it as part of the mainland.

Tellingly, Beijing has named the vessel after a 17th century Chinese admiral most notable for his conquest of Taiwan, while the increasing popularity of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan, which favours independence over eventual reunification with China, could provide a potential spark.

“If the DPP are elected, and take Taiwan to independence, it could push China into a major confrontation,” says Grove. “The Chinese would likely blockade Taiwan and then the Americans would come in.”

The launch of the Shi Lang also has more long-term implications with her refit just the first step in a bigger plan.

According to Grove: “They bought the ship off the Russians so they could cut their operational teeth. They are going to use this to learn how to operate carriers. From here, they’ll probably build some new ones. China is going to have a navy with a global reach.”

“They are putting a significant effort into their modernisation programme. They need a big navy to be a major regional actor and to dominate up to what they call the first and second island chains. They also have regional and extra-regional interest in safeguarding shipping moving through the Indian Ocean.”

“Whether it can be called an arms race is debatable, but there’s definitely a move between the countries of the Far East and south East Asia to expand their naval forces by moving to aircraft carrier ships. It is happening and it will happen more in the future.”

“The launch of the Shi Lang could well bring about an immediate shift in the region, while long-term it looks likely to be the beginning of a trend that could lead to a very different international balance in the region by 2030.”

This first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.