Posted on Wednesday, 09.14.11 by Tom Lasseter, McClatchy Newspapers
BEIJING — The Chinese woman let out a sigh when told her name had been made public in a U.S. diplomatic cable posted to the Internet this month.
As a member of a rights advocacy group in Beijing, she had attended a dinner with U.S. Embassy staff. The guests chatted about the difficulties of operating a civil society organization in China, including unscheduled government inspections. Now, an account of that evening is available to the entire world on the Internet.
When the WikiLeaks website released its full set of 251,287 unredacted U.S. State Department cables two weeks ago, it lifted the curtain on hundreds of Chinese who’ve met with American embassy officials over the years.
That sudden unveiling has left both the cables’ sources and observers of Beijing wondering whether the Chinese government will crack down.
Conversations and online exchanges with 10 people cited in the documents — McClatchy contacted eight more who didn’t reply — found no evidence of harassment at the behest of Chinese leadership. But in a country whose authoritarian rulers are deeply suspicious of American intentions, it’s difficult to know what could come next for those who did not have official permission to meet with U.S. Embassy staff.
People facing pressure from state security officers are often threatened with more serious trouble if they speak with the press. Or Chinese officials could decide to make no move at all, leaving a cloud of uncertainty to hang over those worried about the phone ringing or a knock at the door.
“It may get us into trouble, I can’t say what kind of trouble, but it will be no good,” said the woman from the rights group, who like several other cable sources interviewed for this article spoke on the condition that her name not be used to avoid calling further attention to her case. “We’re in a grey zone, the government knows we exist, and they know to a certain extent what we do … but the cable sends them more details.”
The woman said she could only wait and see what would follow.
“We need to do an assessment,” she said, after hearing the contents of the cable for the first time. “I’m starting to get more and more worried.”
The situation potentially could be even more complex for sources such as ethnic Tibetans or Uighur Muslims in remote areas, who are seen as being particularly vulnerable to government backlash.
“It would be very tricky and risky to try to contact these people and it would be very hard to monitor what happens to them … and if you did, it would probably make things worse,” said Robert Barnett, a leading scholar on Tibet at Columbia University.
He added: “I look at some (cables) and think perhaps that’s OK, that’s ‘allowed chat’ … but some are very worrying and it’s not always the content that’s worrying, it’s the frequency of contact.”
A partial list of some 200 names from the files — mostly Chinese, but with a few foreigners included — was posted on the popular Weibo micro-blog site over the weekend, in both English and Chinese. Some Weibo users interpreted the “protect” and “strictly protect” designations for cable sources to mean those people were informants for the U.S. government. In a few corners of the Chinese nationalist Internet sphere, there were calls for the “informants” or “spies” to be punished.
The English edition of Global Times, a state-run tabloid, carried an article on Tuesday detailing an online spat between two Chinese academics after one highlighted the fact that the other had appeared in a cable.
Yu Jianrong, an expert on rural issues at the state-supervised Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has long avoided interviews with Western reporters, presumably to buttress the argument that his troubling findings about government dysfunction in rural China are the product of scholarly research and not outside influence.
His being cited as a source in U.S. diplomatic documents was almost certainly unwelcome news. In one cable, Yu is paraphrased as telling the embassy that local governments in China resist rural land reform because their budgets are supplemented by “un-compensated or unfairly compensated land transfers” and, additionally, that, “local officials benefit personally from the transfers.”
Another reported that Yu “insisted that rural conflict is already occurring nationwide and on a daily basis.”
Yu quickly clarified on his Weibo page that he was not a traitor: “I fully believe in the capacity of our country’s security departments. They wouldn’t have missed such a big case.”
Prior to the public release of the entire trove of documents, WikiLeaks had given the documents to a variety of news organizations, including McClatchy.
Under their agreements with WikiLeaks, the news organizations were to remove the names of anyone who might face persecution or prosecution for speaking with American officials.
WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange, also required that the news organizations keep the cables only on computers that were not connected to the Internet. In his conversations with McClatchy, he specifically singled out the Chinese government, which is notorious for computer hacking, as the reason for the requirement.
But WikiLeaks released the full text of the cables after they’d begun to appear on the Internet through a complex series of events kicked off by the discovery that a password that would open a publicly available encrypted file had been revealed in a book published earlier this year.
With the unredacted documents already spreading on the Internet, WikiLeaks said it had no choice but to make its files public as well.
“We have a case where every intelligence agency has the material, and the people who are mentioned in the material do not have the material,” Assange explained to an audience at a Berlin conference earlier this month, via a video link. “So you have a race between the bad guys and the good guys, and it was necessary for us to stand on the side of the good guys.”
Assange’s detractors say WikiLeaks’ move was reckless and dangerous.
“Any unauthorized disclosure of classified information by WikiLeaks has harmful implications for the lives of identified individuals that are jeopardized, but also for global engagement among and between nations,” said a statement emailed to McClatchy by Richard Buangan, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. “Given its potential impact, we condemn such unauthorized disclosures and are taking every step to prevent future security breaches.”
One Chinese political analyst said that U.S. Embassy personnel visited him last year to alert him that WikiLeaks was in possession of documents that named him.
“They explained the whole situation,” the analyst said. “It was embarrassing for them.”
But not all sources named in the documents said they received such alerts. Another man, whose work involves ethnic minorities in China and whose identity was designated “strictly protect,” said he hadn’t heard anything about the issue.
Contacted by telephone, he said, “This is a sensitive topic in China” and apologized for not being able to say more.
Asked whether there were State Department guidelines for which sources to warn, Buangan referred back to a section of the emailed statement: “The Department of State does not comment on materials, including classified documents, which may have been leaked.”
A former writer for a Chinese state news outlet who was cited in a cable said he didn’t expect much trouble.
“I’m not too worried, I wasn’t talking about something secret — I was just expressing my opinion,” he said. “The information wasn’t confidential, it was just small talk among friends.”
A blogger, whose thoughts about the potential uses of the Internet for political activism in China were detailed in a cable, also said the situation is “not as serious as some people (are) worried (about), it’s old information anyway.”
Still, the former state news staffer said he was disappointed to learn that his conversations with U.S. Embassy staff — including reports of discontent about Premier Wen Jiabao’s economic policies — were typed up in cables, and even more chagrined that those cables had been made public.
Reached by an online message, one of many academics who appeared in the files politely declined to be interviewed.
“I am very sorry, but I don’t think it is convenient for me to be interviewed about that now,” said the researcher, who was quoted in several cables on the issue of internal Chinese political intrigues. “We could talk about this in the future only if the time is right.”