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China’s leading web search company has launched an online, user-generated encyclopedia modelled on Wikipedia, the hugely popular co-operative reference website that is blocked by Beijing censors.

Unlike the encyclopedia developed by donation-funded Wikipedia, “Baidupedia” – the new service from Nasdaq-listed Baidu.com – is heavily censored to avoid offending the Chinese government. Baidu has barred users from including any “malicious evaluation of the current national system”, any “attack on government institutions” or even “promotion of a dispirited or negative view of life”.

The service, which Baidu launched last month, highlights both the sensitivities of operating in the Chinese internet market and the opportunities created for local companies by the government’s blocks on thousands of overseas websites.

Wikipedia’s Chinese language version boasts more than 67,000 entries and had been enjoying rapidly growing popularity in China until access was blocked by Beijing late last year.

The move caused a flurry of complaints from local internet users, for whom Wikipedia offered a rich source of reference material on subjects such as science and culture as well as sensitive uncensored discussion of Chinese politics.

In a telephone interview, Robin Li, Baidu chairman and chief executive, said Baidupedia was based on the approach pioneered by Wikipedia, but that he was unaware of the government’s ban on the US service. “My undergraduate major was in information management and I have a very thorough education in encyclopedias, so I understand the concept, but personally I have not used Wikipedia,” Mr Li said.

“I certainly hope our encyclopedia will be the most authoritative one for any Chinese users,” he said. “The initial reaction has been very positive, so we are quite confident that we will quickly become the number one in this area.”

However, while the block on Wikipedia will make it much easier for Baidupedia to attract users, the service’s appeal could be undermined by strict censorship.

Wikipedia relies on the goodwill of its users to enforce its principles of neutrality and the objective presentation of different views, an approach that has helped it to develop a huge range of content. By contrast, contributions to Baidupedia must first pass a filtering system before being posted, with users awarded points for successfully submitted entries.

Baidu, which yesterday reported strong growth in revenues and profits for the first quarter, has in the past benefited from restrictions imposed on foreign internet companies in China.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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