A brief note on wikileaks and sheltered State Dept employees.

[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.]

23 comments

  1. I completely concur. Having worked as mil attache, I can attest to the fact that these so-called dips don’t like to get dirty or meet the real people. As a result, they are often surprised by obvious grassroots developments. They simply read the papers and make guesses…

  2. You only talk about China but worldwide the context is so much different. You also provide no alternative rationale like gossip and hearsay. As if that would negate the thrust of your post which I assure you I believe more than assertions of 10K bribes. The Chinese internet has been alive with comment on a New Jersey bribery. Even the ants know 10-20 thousand dollars is a risible bribery amount which is why they laughed at it.

    However taking a less parochial view of things and looking at the big world I’d say the sunlight that just opened up between Sunni and Shiite Islam is the big story here. It’s something the State Department is experiencing law of unintended consequences over and will be studying very very carefully to see how transparency effects people, media and ultimately policy. It’s a seminal internet event.

  3. Did you consider the possibility of a typo? Yeah, your update helps, but the bottom line is you’re making a sweeping generalization based on a sample of one. Yes, there are naive consular officers out there, but this cable, which otherwise offers detail and substantiation, isn’t bad. And your attache buddy is a bit cheeky if he wants us to believe dips are the only ones who read newspapers and pass it off as their own.

  4. I think you are too quick to back off this post Adam. It’s no secret that State has trouble getting decent information out of embassies, consualtes, fsos. Reporting or suggesting that Wen was paid off to the tune of $10,000 calls into question the entire cable and whoever sent it. Take a look at the NYT story up earlier and how they characterize the cables getting DPRK all wrong. Anybody willing to make a connection? If you’re willing to swallow the info on Wen then you might be willing to swallow other crap as well.

    Occam, are you being serious when you write that the Wen bribe is a ‘typo’ possibly. Give me a break.

  5. the bit about wen and $10,000 calls the entire cable into question. what other speculative info is in there? what other bs did the fso swallow?

  6. I think i’ve seen this movie before. US collects intelligence from unreliable sources, ignores problems with sources, and pays the price in bad policy later. My read of the cables says that state people have had DPRK related material wrong for a long time. You have to think sources play a role in that.

  7. Occam – It’s not a typo. Note the deliberate comma in the 10,000.
    Charles – a very interesting point about the Arab world. I have no experience there so I’ll limit my comments to China. But I think you’re definitely pointing to something important.

  8. 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…

    Alright, it may be unfair to expect everyone to be a cultural expert, but officials who are functionally engaged in certain issues should be well-versed in areas in which they supposedly have expertise. In meetings with U.S. CBP and PTO officials, I have been generally amazed at their very basic grasp of Chinese law and near ignorance of certain realities on the ground here.

    And oh yes, many FSOs are living much more comfortably on taxpayer’s money than many expats working for MNCs.

  9. Problematic with these wikileak cables is that they exist to us in a vacuum. We don’t get to see how the cable was handled–was the sender charged with sending any information, regardless of how dumb-sounding, was the recipient a better-informed analyst who could separate the wheat from the chaff and pursue what appears to be a more obvious story.

  10. The source was probaly chinese and it was supposed to be 10,000 万 and the transcriber just ommited that 😉

  11. Jen – I agree with your point to a point. We don’t know the rules and reasons for these cables, and specifically their collection. But we do know a few things. So, according to the header, this cable was “passed” to three entities: EAP/CM, EAP/K, and INR. Those are, respectively, the Director of Chinese and Mongolian Affairs, the Director of Korean Affairs, and the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. In the first two cases, at least, you have some rather senior folks reading these cables unvarnished (people who probably know better than to think Wen Jiabao can be had for US$10,000.00). In the third case, the cable is subjected to further analysis (for further distribution, I suppose) – supporting your point. It’s worth noting that the cable was classified by the Consul General in Shenyang.

    I have zero expertise in intelligence gathering, but I have to think that if a source offers up a whopper like the US$10,000 grand whopper, s/he is probably offering up more. And that calls into question his/her information and, to a real extent, the information culled by the people preparing these cables. As a commentator noted above, the US has a sorry history of listening to the wrong intelligence, and forwarding it on to policymakers who take it as gospel.

  12. The graft story is probably true-looks like the amount is a typo or misinterpreted-asians frequently use counts – 10 might have been mentioned in a conversation meaning 10 mil, the embassy employee misinterpreted as 10,000.

  13. Occam,

    They would have had to miss quite a few zeroes to make that a believable typo. There are primary schools in Beijing you can’t get into for that kind of bribe.

  14. Babban and Peter, if the bribe story is true and the FSO failed to tack on a few zeros, or omitted a 万, I’d say that is a problem as well. As the very least State Dept employees should be primed in the basic unit of conversion for Chinese numbers.

  15. The wikileaks were released without any scrutiny, and taken at face value as authentic. You are certainly correct that many consulates are mostly isolated from their host countrymen.
    One story line that I find hard to believe is that Hillary actually messaged her employees to ‘spy’ on UN officials. Now, this behavior is otherwise very believable; Hillary was practiced at this skullduggery from the time of Gov. Bill’s first bimbo eruption in Little Rock. But is it plausible that she even had to do this? I would bet that there was an intel desk at State, CIA, FBI and other government departments solely dedicated to gathering information on UN employees. I’d bet that the U.S. began that collection the day the UN was incorporated. Further, I’d bet that those desks grew with the government itself, and are now whole departments (counter intelligence: UN employees manicurists dept., UN employees favorite sex positions department, and so forth). And I’d bet that some young, ambitious CIA or State staffers had PowerPoint presentations of the Top Ten compromised ambassadors, ready to go when Hillary was appointed, aimed at a promotion and juicy foreign assignment.
    Today, even international law firms perform the same private-eye work for their intl clients.
    It is more credible that Hillary yelled “Stop!Enough! I have to get some work done!” at the deluge of intel on UN personnel.
    Hillary is certainly devoid of ethical principles. And this wikileak resembles her methods. But how do we know it is true?

  16. QUOTE FROM THE OP: “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).”

    Then why would Google leave – or distance itself – from China? Unlike the ridiculously low bribe example, which I totally agree with you on, this “leak” actually is consistent with other reported facts: Google claimed to have been hacked by PRC gov sources; the wiki leak, and the separate New York Times article, which included additional information (it named names), also reported this. This is consistent.
    It’s seems a bit intellectually dishonest to lump the two allegations together, doubting one because the other seems implausible.

  17. Da Ye-han – The cable in question suggests that Li Changchun, a member of the Politburo and the head of China’s Propaganda office, became incensed when he googled his name and found negative results. The cable – and several news organizations – then imply that the crackdown on google was initiated in response. Google has had serious problems operating in China, but I very seriously doubt that those problems are a result of a Politburo member’s vanity searches. Indeed, the cable in question – May 18 from the Beijing embassy – includes serious qualifiers suggesting that the information it reports may not be reliable. I have blogged separately on this cable, here.

  18. I studied international relations (Carleton College ’84) and took exams for foreign service. But after an interesting coincidental drive with the USA Ambassador to Cameroon (he picked up up hitchhiking), I learned that USA policy is to shift people out of countries if they get too familiar, and in the 1980s it was almost as if speaking Spanish disqualified you as Ambassador to El Salvador. Fortunately, USGS.gov is pretty sharp. They follow copper mine (and scrap) politics… Look into the Chinese investment in reopening the OK Tedi mine in PNG.

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