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Since Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan at the start of August, China has stepped up efforts to enforce its One China principle in public. But what can be lost in the flare-up is that those efforts are not new, and a lot of the work goes on in quieter, more bureaucratic settings. The recent example of the World Intellectual Property Organization’s (WIPO) Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR) is an instructive case study of the kind of policing that goes on that may have passed most people by.

Three months ago, six Wikimedia chapters saw their applications for observer status at the World Intellectual Property Organization’s (WIPO) Standing Committee on Copyright and Related Rights (SCCR) blocked by China because of their connection to content it claims violates the principle.

The Wikimedia chapters of France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Sweden and Switzerland, identifying as independent organizations founded to support and promote Wikimedia projects in each specified geographical region, notably including Wikipedia, were rejected May 9. China’s intervention labeled them subsidiaries of the Wikimedia Foundation, which it said produces content that violates the “One China” principle, as well as “misinformation.” Citing the U.N. General Assembly Resolution 2758, which first recognized the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as “the only legitimate representative of China to the United Nations,” China’s representative on the standing committee incorrectly claimed this position made all of the Wikimedia chapters ineligible for observer status according to previously existing U.N. positions. Ultimately, though, the applications were blocked on the technocratic grounds that approval did not have consensus behind it on the committee. Bolivia, Iran, Nicaragua, Russia and Venezuela tacitly supported China’s position by citing the lack of consensus. 

Confusingly, China’s statement did not outline specific points through which it believes Wikimedia violates the One China principle, as it also did not previously in 2021, when rejecting the application of the Wikimedia Foundation itself. However, when it rejected the foundation’s application for the first time in 2020, it identified objections to both content on Wikimedia Foundation projects, such as Wikipedia, and allegedly “political activities … which could undermine the state’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” coming from the volunteer-led Wikimedia Taiwan chapter. So it can be inferred that that was again the reasoning here.

Pointing out the practical implications of the decision, nonprofit organization Creative Commons said at the time: “The WIPO SCCR is a major normative forum, shaping laws and policies that influence access to and sharing of knowledge and observer status is a prerequisite for participating in such discussions.” Essentially, the six Wikimedia chapters kept out of this process are being denied the chance to help shape copyright decisions that directly affect their work, which in turn affects millions of readers across the world. 

But there are key symbolic battles going on here too.

Firstly, China has a history with Wikimedia. It banned the Chinese-language version of Wikipedia in 2015 and followed up by banning all versions in 2019. No reason was given, though Reuters noted that it was implemented in the days before the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, which may be a clue as to its thinking. Additionally, in 2021, seven Chinese editors were banned from editing Wikipedia over claims that they were “coordinating to bias the encyclopedia and bias positions of authority” around a pro-Beijing perspective, with methods including interfering in administrator elections and threatening, doxxing and physically assaulting other volunteers. That banning went down badly in Beijing, with state-owned Global Times publishing an article suggesting that this “hugely impaired” Wikipedia’s neutrality (an audacious and slightly bizarre argument to take up given that blocking the site is obviously a far greater barrier to Chinese contributions than banning a small number of individuals, nevermind the whole idea of wanting your people to edit a site you don’t think should exist within your geographical location.)

More broadly, though, the move can be seen as a continued escalation of China’s wider attempts to police its “One China” principle, “whereby China insists Taiwan is an inalienable part of one China to be reunified one day, and thus seeks to curtail political recognition of Taiwan on the international stage. 

High-profile examples such as blocking of Taiwan’s bid to attend the World Health Organization’s annual assembly make headlines, but blocking access to something as lowkey as a copyright committee is symptomatic of more incremental efforts that are harder to cover and thus receive less attention. A Swedish Defence Research Agency report released in May, for instance, noted various Chinese methods for setting out red lines for engagements with Taiwan, including “posting ‘disciplinary’ public statements; publishing articles in media; contacting and intimidating media outlets, journalists, and politicians; and pressuring civil society, private enterprises, and academia.” A German Marshall fund report published in March, meanwhile, mapped a wide range of hidden techniques China uses to systematically keep Taiwan out of the U.N. specifically, including “specialized funding schemes, the signing of memoranda of understandings (MOUs), and embedding PRC nationals across all levels of UN staff as well as outside it.” 

These efforts do not make nightly news bulletins, but keeping volunteer-based Wikimedia chapters out of a relatively obscure standing committee, on the basis of an indirect relationship with an organization that includes a single, independent Taiwan chapter and a few encyclopedia entries out of millions that China views as egregious is a useful study of just how far they go. They represent the fact that, for the moment at least, China’s campaign against Taiwan’s right to self-determination is a mundane procedural one as much as anything else, playing out in gray committee meetings and technocratic justifications as much as through bombastic speeches in front of missiles and soldiers. 

Image: Wikimedia Foundation

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