By Adrienne Mong/NBC News File
China's keeping mum on the leaked US diplomatic cables.
By Adrienne Mong and Bo Gu
As fascinating as the leaked U.S. diplomatic cables may be to China-watchers, the latest batch of documents should be treated cautiously.
The cables, mostly based on South Korean sources, suggest China is fed up with its northern neighbor. Among the more startling revelations: that China “would be comfortable with a reunified Korea controlled by Seoul and anchored to the U.S. in a ‘benign alliance’ as long as Korea was not hostile towards China” and that North Korea “had little value to China as a buffer state.”
“The majority of the cables which talk about China-North Korea relationship seem to emanate from Seoul as opposed to Beijing, so I think they say a lot of about what South Korean diplomats really would wishfully hope for a Chinese position,” said Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, North East Asia Project Director and China Adviser at the International Crisis Group.
Only one side of the story
Moreover, the leaked documents might only capture one dimension of a complex policymaking process in China.
“These are cables between diplomats, and foreign ministries have certainly a very important role in making foreign policies, but they are hardly the only actors,” said Kleine-Ahlbrandt. “Particularly in the Chinese contexts, in addition to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, you have on North Korea other factors that are equally important, such as the Communist Party’s International Liaison Department, the People’s Liberation Army.”
At a regularly scheduled press briefing, Beijing refused to comment on the substance or content of the WikiLeaks cables, only saying that it hoped the U.S. would “properly handle” the situation and that China “did not want to see any disturbance to China-U.S. relations.”
As with many other governments implicated in the cables, the Chinese central government has gone into damage control. Which also means controlling the information.
Controlling the content
The leaks have dominated headlines in some major Chinese news outlets, and two popular Web portals have published special reports. But for most Chinese citizens who do not speak English, what they see in domestic news is extremely limited.
Netease.com, one of China’s biggest Web portals, translated a great deal of the newly released documents in its special report. Readers can easily learn about Moammar Gadhafi’s fear of heights, Hillary Clinton’s order for spying on U.N. officials, Azerbaijan’s first lady’s frequent plastic surgeries, or even the Saudi king’s suggestion on planting microchips on criminal suspects.
But there’s absolutely no information on the China-related cables -- on the Politburo’s hacking of Google or North Korea or Tibet issues.
In fact, Netease’s special report posts a map that illustrates the amount of cables released from all over the world, clearly indicating 3,297 came out of Beijing -- a bigger number than most of the other cities sourced in the diplomatic cables. But in the thousands of comments left by the website’s readers, nobody raises the one obvious question: why is there nothing about China?
WikiLeaks is already blocked in China. It’s a common strategy the government adopts whenever there is information they don’t want citizens to see -- although most of the time not everything is censored, and only official news coverage on the sensitive subject by Xinhua or CCTV is permitted.
Instead, Chinese media coverage of the leaks concerning U.S. military strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan has created an anti-America forum for segments of the Chinese online community.
“Assange should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize because he’s a fighter protecting the spirit of freedom. He liberated the whole world from the American dictator’s rule on truth,” was a comment first left on another popular Web portal, Sina.com; it was soon reposted many times.
“The Iraq war was illegal itself. What WikiLeaks has released on the war is righteous and enables more people to know the ordeal Iraqi people are suffering under this illegal war. This could end the Iraqi war sooner and bring another anti-terror war supported by the whole world,” reads another comment on QQ.com, a popular Website favored by Chinese youth.
Ordinary Chinese perhaps unfazed
To some critics, the lack of enthusiasm in finding out what may have been leaked about China is unsurprising. “There are a couple of reasons behind this,” said Bei Feng, a Hong Kong based Internet observer in a phone interview with NBC. “First, the government probably has ordered a ban on the leaks on China. Secondly, there’s not too much information translated into Chinese.”
Bei argues that altogether the leaks are probably “not a big shock for the Chinese people. What we have learned from WikiLeaks falls into our common knowledge of what we think of the government. People don’t think it’s strange that China would want to back the Korean peninsula’s reunification or abandon North Korea, and people think it’s completely normal for China to buy off a country like Kyrgyzstan. Google, yeah, we’ve all assumed like that before, so nothing is making any big impact on the people here at all.”
But the coming release of new U.S. diplomatic cables on China has Bei on alert. “As more content is translated, we need to see whether there’ll be more impact. For example, if there’s any new information on the student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, or if there’s any corruption related to the second generation of Communist officials. This is the kind of content that touches on the most sensitive areas for Chinese, and people care about that more.”