The Moral Hazards of Too Much Entertaining Transparency, ala Wikileaks. [UPDATED]

Of the many wikileaks now released to the public, none is quite so disturbing (or, I must admit, interesting) to me as a November 16, 2009 cable released – without much fanfare – on December 28. Entitled ‘Portrait of Vice President Xi Jinping: “Ambitious Survivor” of the Cultural Revolution,” it offers a detailed historical study of Xi, China’s next leader, based upon an interview with a single source who purportedly knew Xi over the course of several decades (Daily Telegraph’s Malcolm Moore nicely summarizes the leak here). Here’s the problem: from the very moment that wikileaks announced that it would be releasing State Department cables, Julian Assange was quite clear that the organization would work hard to redact names and other information that could place confidential US intelligence sources at risk. Thus, the name of the source of information in the Xi Jinping cable is redacted to XXXXXXXXXXXX. But, in a sign that perhaps wikileaks either a) didn’t truly care whether or not intelligence sources were identified; b) aren’t nearly as smart as they’re credited for being; or, more likely c) took a seriously half-assed and rushed approach to redacting/protecting sources, the following information could be found in just the first few hundred words of a cable that contains thousands:

  • “The contact is an American citizen of Chinese descent who teaches political science at XXXXXXXXXXXX”
  • “XXXXXXXXXXXX and Xi Jinping were both born in 1953 and grew up in similar circumstances. According to the professor, they lived with other sons and daughters of China’s first-generation revolutionaries in the senior leaders’ compounds in Beijing and were groomed to become China’s ruling elite. The professor did not know Xi personally until they had both reached their late teens, when the professor began to hear about Xi from the professor’s best friend, XXXXXXXXXXXX, who was later sent to the same village as Xi in Shaanxi province during the Cultural Revolution.”
  • “By the time the professor and Xi had returned separately from the countryside, they had come to know each other personally, initially through Zhou Sanhua’s introduction, and maintained a relationship for the next 15 years (ca. 1972 to 1987), even though their lives and careers took markedly different paths.”
  • “The professor’s father was also an early revolutionary and contemporary of Mao, from a neighboring county to Mao’s in Hunan province. The professor’s father participated in the revolution periodically but also spent time in Japan and Hong Kong, distinguishing himself as a labor leader. In 1949, according to the professor, his father agreed to return to Beijing at Mao’s insistent and become the PRC’s first Minister of Labor and a member of the first Chinese People’s Political Consulatative Conference (CPPCC) Standing Committee.”

Google, anyone?

[UPDATED Jan 8: That didn’t take long. The ‘Alone in the Fart’ blog does a nifty bit of detective work and fingers the source of the cable as Yi Xiaoxiong,  a professor at Marietta College.  However, it’s worth nothing that what appeared to be the most revealing piece of evidence in the cable – the source’s father’s role as the PRC’s Minister of Labor – turns out to be false (this is also pointed by Sam, in comment #6, below). That’s a rather major error, and brings up, once again, a point that I made several weeks ago: the quality of the information contained in these cables is often very poor and suspect.]

8 comments

  1. Adam, first, happy new year.

    Now, as to this particular WikiLeak. I read Malcolm Moore’s summary of the US Embassy cable and frankly, it was quite flattering to Xi. It seems the kind of information one would relate over coffee and bagels in the morning, like, “Yeah, I know Adam and he’s a pretty cool guy, writes well, has a good journalistic attitude. His family likes him.” No harm, no foul.

    Frankly, the less WL redacts its cables, the more useful they are. The cables as a whole relate information that was already suspected of being shared within US Foreign Service circles, chatty and frequently condescending. (The Foreign Service is the Harvard of government agencies.)

    What makes them valuable is in determining the degree of condescension and insularity individuals express, how out of touch they are with local realities. They’re the closest we’re going to come to getting real performance reviews for the Foreign Service officers. Each cable should come with bylines.

    One such collection of cables will have special interest to several of us following a certain story. It’s too bad WikiLeaks is into the tease.

  2. Hey Bob – Actually, many of the cables DO have bylines. But anyway, perhaps I’m too much of the journalist, but I really do believe in protecting sources. Wikileaks apparently does, too, or else they wouldn’t have x’d out the source of this cable. And it is not a flattering cable, I don’t think: Xi is depicted as having middling intelligence, a cold personality, and a divorce (not that I care – but it’s something that Chinese leaders would not want revealed AT ALL). For the most part, I have no problem with the wikileaks exercise, but I do think that they have a certain moral obligation to protect those who could face retaliation for talking to US officials about confidential matters. This professor, whoever he is, and his family, will surely face consequences for this little episode.

  3. I defer to your experience and expertise in this matter, Adam. It’s just, I’ve seen worse: unattributed revelations. Then everyone’s a suspect. Star Chamber time.

  4. If I understand correctly, the redactions are not coming from Wikileaks. Rather, redactions are made based on recommendations from the news organizations with which they first shared the cables (The Guardian, Der Spiegel, et al). Therefore, at least most, if not all of the onus of this moral obligation to protect sources rests on these organizations and not on Wikileaks. (This is based on the premise that the system of redaction and release is still being followed as it was when the news of the cable leak first broke.)

  5. Andrew – Excellent clarification. Thank you. With that in mind, yes, the news organizations deserve a considerable amount of blame for this. And yet, I have to still assign some to wikileaks – surely, somebody around there could’ve taken a second look at the cable and said “You know, the news organizations only blacked out the guy’s name. We should probably do more than that.” In any case, thank you for that reminder.

  6. I had thought this would be an easy googling but to my surprise it wasn’t.

    The guy’s father can only be Li Lisan, based on the first ministry of labor and a native of Hunan. But Li Lisan committed suicide in 1967 so there would be no rehabilitation, plus both Li Lisan’s sons are much older than the guy, and they seem to all still in China.

  7. Sam – You’re quite right. The Labor Ministry info appears to be incorrect. Another blogger teases out the correct information, and the source, here. Worth a look.

  8. The “Ministry of Labor” thing was probably a misunderstanding on the cable author’s part. Yi Lirong (Li Xiaoxiong’s father) was:
    1) head of the Labor Security Department (劳动保障部长) of the “All-China Federation of Trade Unions”, and
    2) the Deputy Secretary General of CPPCC’s Standing Committee (but NOT a member of this standing committee).

    Now, the chinese Ministry of Labour (劳动部) had changed its name in 1998 to Ministry of Labour and Social Security (劳动和社会保障部). Hence the title of its head had also changed. The author of the cable could have confused the actual title of Yi Lirong, 劳动保障部长 (Head of Labor Security Department), with 劳动和社会保障部长 (Minister of Labour and Social Security) and changed this title to its pre-1998 name, Minister of Labour. He might have also mistaken Yi as a member of CPPCC’s Standing Committee, although Yi was just the deputy secretary general but not a member.

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