[UPDATE 12/1 - A hearty recommendation for Richard Spencer's piece in today's Telegraph, "Why China hasn't abandoned North Korea - and why wikileaks is a work of flawed genius." Very much related to this post, only better.]
Earlier today the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos blogged disappointment (shared by many, including me) at the lack of juicy wikileaks about China and the Chinese leadership (ala the Qadaffi “voluptuous nurse” cable). And then, as if it were meant to be, wikileaks released the “Shenyang Cable,” complete with a section entitled “Princelings Behaving Badly.” (for those who don’t follow these things – ‘Princeling‘ is the nickname given to the children of high-ranking Chinese officials). The cable is entertaining/interesting for two reasons. First, it describes how the Princelings secure business deals in North Korea. And second, it describes two Chinese companies competing for sole mining rights to North Korea’s largest copper mine. One of those companies, Wanxiang Group, is described as close to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. And then we get this:
Without naming names, XXXXXXXXXX also suggested the strong possibility that someone had made a payment (on the order of USD 10,000) to secure the premier’s support.
That’s right: somebody at the US Consulate in Shenyang reported the “strong possibility” that China’s premier had been bribed for less than the cost of a used Buick in Shanghai. That is to say, somebody at the US Consulate in Shenyang – probably several somebodies – believes that the Premier can be bribed for less than the cost of a used Buick in Shanghai. Now, you don’t need to know anything about graft in China, much less world leaders, or Wen Jiabao, to know that $10,000 not only wouldn’t get the job done, it’d be viewed as an insult and an automatic disqualification from this any other mining contract. So I’m going to go out on a limb here: there’s simply no way that happened. None. Zero. Zilch. Now, is it possible that Wen has a “relationship” with Wanxiang? Sure. But not the one described in the cable.
And this gets to something that I think is going to become increasingly, uncomfortably obvious as more and more of these cables are released: US State Department employees in overseas posts often don’t know very much about the countries in which they’re posted. This is the result of a number of factors, not least of which is that they’re often sheltered – I mean truly isolated – from the countries in which they’re posted, living on upper-middle class wages in secure compounds where they have little to no contact with anyone but officials and employees of major US companies. US Consular employees in Shanghai, for example, live in serviced apartments at the Portman Ritz-Carlton (at US taxpayer expense), and often socialize accordingly. I don’t know the situation in Shenyang, but I feel comfortable suggesting that the person who felt comfortable reporting the alleged $10,000 bribe doesn’t regularly associate with people doing business in Shenyang (expat or otherwise). If s/he did, there’s no way that level of stupidity would have made its way into the cable.
That’s why I’m taking much of what I read in these cables – out of China or elsewhere – with a giant grain of salt (such as yesterday’s ridiculous ‘revelation’ that google’s problems in China are to due to a personal vendetta launched by a Politburo member). In the case of the Shenyang Consulate, at least, there’s now little reason to believe that the employees are equipped with even a budget-grade bullshit detector. If the State Department has anything to be embarrassed about, it’s not that these cables leaked, but that somebody once took them seriously enough to label as secret.
[UPDATE: Just to be clear - I'm not labeling the entire State Department as naive. Nor the entire US mission diplomatic in China. I've met some great FSOs - you know who you are, and you probably don't want to be named - and I've also met a very fair share of not-so-great ones. That a diplomatic cable was sent to D.C. with the strong suggestion (whether endorsed by the reporting FSO or not) that the Chinese premier was bribed for the price of a used Buick - I blame that on a systemic failure of the not-so-great, naive ones. With thanks to Gady Epstein of Forbes for reminding me that I need to be careful about generalizing. He's right.]
[UPDATE 2: Some interesting comments being left below, and in my inbox. For now I'm going to pull up comment #8 from Richard A, in part because I agree with it. And in part because it is just so vivid:
I know a lot of FSOs and other consular officials in Guangzhou. I am consistently unimpressed by their knowledge of China. The young FSOs who are shipped over for 2-3 years spend little time engaging with anyone besides Americans, other consular officials, or the Chinese who apply for visas and related documentation. I have found that many consular officials hold negative, sometimes hostile, views of Chinese people and the Chinese government, and other than language ability, demonstrate little capacity to understand China beyond what can be gleamed from mainstream, English-language media. I had dinner once at a consular officials house (after he and his family were well into their second year in China) and he was surprised when I explained that, “No, I can’t make turkey for Christmas because like most people here, there is no oven in my apartment.” Of course, he had never seen the inside of a Chinese home…
Not to belabor this point, but an FSO who hasn't been inside of a private Chinese home is an FSO who lacks the cultural context to evaluate intelligence in China. This is a problem.]