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.”