Every morning, my email includes a news digest from the Washington Post. The nice thing about WashingtonPost.com is that the administrative tools allow me to set up a decently nuanced set of filters beyond the usual "national," "politics," "sports" and other topics that MSM leaders think are important. It will not shock you that one of my topics is "religion." Lately, it seems -- three cheers -- that the filter has been getting better. Obviously, the system has been pointing me toward the obvious Godbeat stories that you know a major newspaper will cover, such as terrorists blowing up shrines, Vatican officials naming new cardinals and oldline Protestant leaders struggling with lifestyle issues. Sometimes, this net yields a truly unusual catch, like this look at a very different set of shrines, or Shriners.
Earlier this week, the following China story by Philip P. Pan showed up in my WashingtonPost.com "religion" offerings. As a mass media professor, I was hooked by the technology-shapes-content thesis captured in the double-deck headline: "Reference Tool On Web Finds Fans, Censors -- After Flowering as Forum, Wikipedia Is Blocked Again."
I dug in, assuming I would eventually hit the religion angle that the filters caught. Sure enough, there was a good one. What amazed me was how deep into the story I found what I was looking for. After all, free-speech fights always lead to matters of the soul and, thus, various offensive and "divisive" topics.
In early 2004, state-run newspapers began writing positive articles about the Chinese Wikipedia, and the coverage fueled further growth. By February, more than 3,000 people had registered as users and there were more than 5,000 entries. By April, the site was getting nearly 100,000 page requests per day. By May, the number of definitions on the site had climbed past 10,000.
Then, on June 3, 2004, people in China who tried to visit Wikipedia saw an error page instead. The government had blocked the site on the eve of the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
You can see how that would lead to problems.
Instead of backing down, the site attracted more users, and the debates intensified as people tried to hammer out their differences on subjects such as the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, the one-child policy and even the Chinese Communist Party.
I assume that "Falun Gong" or "spiritual" was the trip point. I, for one, would have liked to have seen some reporting on how the open-forum Wikipedia site was handling Roman Catholicism in China or the gigantic evangelical house-church movement. But progress is progress. Amen.
Still, all of this reminded me of an evening back in June of 1997, when I attended a small conference in Hong Kong a few days before the handover of the province from Great Britain to China. Speaking off the record, a powerful newspaper executive in the region stressed that there were only two men in the world who truly threatened the Chinese authorities.
Of course, one of the visiting journalists immediately asked, "Who?"
He said, "Pope John Paul II and Bill Gates."