Who Did What in China’s Past? Look It Up, or Maybe Not





Just who was Mao Zedong?

In the English-language version of Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia, he was a victorious military and political leader who founded China’s modern Communist state. But he was also a man whom 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, though, and you read about a very different man. There, Mao’s reputation is unsullied by mention of any death toll in the great purges of the 1950s and 1960s, like the Great Leap Forward, a mass collectivization and industrialization campaign begun in 1958 that produced what many historians call the greatest famine in human history.

Wikipedia, an open encyclopedia founded in 2001 that allows ordinary users to create and edit the vast bulk of its entries, has always posed a challenge to China’s hypersensitive censors. Earlier this month, the government opened access to both the English and Chinese sites, though it has since resumed its blackout on the Chinese site. But on questions of this country’s modern history or on hot-button topical issues, the Chinese version diverges so significantly from its English counterpart that it sometimes reads as if it were approved by the censors themselves.



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