The challenges facing the Chinese WikiLeaks

Posted: December 11th, 2010 | Tags: , , , , , , | No Comments »

“WikiLeaks has had more scoops in three years than the Washington Post has had in 30,” tweeted media commentator Clay Shirky recently. The Afghan war logs, Iraq war logs and now #cablegate – WikiLeaks has enjoyed huge publicity this year for its muckraking leaks. Journalists like to quip that they’re not doing their job properly if somebody, somewhere isn’t angry. Judging by the U.S.’s reaction to #cablegate, WikiLeaks is doing plenty right then.

Now a group of Chinese calling itself Government Leaks are looking to do the same for China. The group is soliciting classified information for a copycat website, which will launch on June 1 next year.

The date has resonance across China. Marches for universal suffrage take place in Hong Kong on the day, and drew a half million-strong turnout in 2003. June 1 is also days away from the political hot potato of June 4, date of 1989’s Tiananmen Square massacre. China’s government traditionally cracks down on any dissent in the weeks leading up to the anniversary by placing activists under house arrest and tightening internet censorship.

China – with its endemic corruption, opaque judicial system and public surveillance – would perhaps benefit from a bold, cathartic WikiLeaks-style project, as Government Leaks purports to be. But the Chinese imitator has not enamoured itself with WikiLeak’s founder and show runner Julian Assange. He told Forbes:

There have been a few over time, and they’ve been very dangerous. It’s not something that’s easy to do right. That’s the problem. Recently we saw a Chinese WikiLeaks. We encouraged them to come to us to work with us. It would be nice to have more Chinese speakers working with us in a dedicated way. But what they’d set up had no meaningful security. They have no reputation you can trust. It’s very easy and very dangerous to do it wrong.

WikiLeaks also voiced its disapproval in September this year when Government Leaks was revealed.

“China WikiLeaks” is unauthorized and insecure. Avoid! If well intentioned they will contact us. than a minute ago via web

Assange raises a good point on the matter of security. Government Leaks’s system of uploading files and then scrubbing them of any markers that could be used to identify the leaker needs to be completely bulletproof. On this point, the organisers seem well prepared as they talk about SSL encryption for uploading files and possibly using Tor in the future. And of course, the internet servers that will host and publish any material will also be situated outside China.

Developing a reputation is more difficult under the coercive Chinese government. Leaking state secrets in China carries a much greater risk than the U.S., where Private Bradley Manning is under arrest for being WikiLeaks’ alleged source. China’s definition of state secrets is also capricious, vague and arbitrary. Leaking fairly innocuous or unimportant information is punishable. The cachet of a world-famous foreign newspaper behind you counts for nothing either. Zhao Yan, a Chinese researcher at the New York Times’s Beijing bureau, supplied information about former President Jiang Zemin’s planned retirement in 2006. The Times delivered an exclusive story at the cost of Zhao’s imprisonment for three years.

Bravery in doing so aside, obtaining classified information will also be very tricky. Governments and organisations everywhere share information digitally, whether by physical mediums, intranets or the internet. But China’s government, with remarkable, obdurate foresight, has stuck with paper. According to this fascinating New York Review of Books story by Perry Link:

Party archives in China exist at local, provincial, and central levels and have always been secret and extremely closely guarded. At local levels, some, in recent years, have been digitized, but at the highest levels the original paper is guarded physically, and rules of access are complex and extremely rigid.

Clearly then, merely getting your hands on any WikiLeaks-scale secrets, let alone permission to withdraw them, will be extremely difficult. The level of caution and security should come as no surprise given the Community Party’s tumultuous formation and history. China has enough skeletons in the closet with stories to tell to fill a library. Link goes onto detail what occupies the thoughts of those charged with safeguarding state secrets:

What would happen, the officials wondered, if they were raided during “social disturbances” such as the recent riots in Guangzhou protesting the central government’s effort to end Cantonese-language broadcasts in Cantonese-speaking areas. (The number of such “disturbances” has grown steadily in recent years, to more than 230,000 in 2009.) Should emergency incineration equipment be supplied at all archive sites, just in case? What if archive staff realize that they can sell things for profit? Should the staff be paid more, to buy their loyalty?

It will not matter who you are either. China’s government treats its citizens and employees with suspicion. Part of Richard McGregor’s excellent book The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers is about Yang Jisheng’s journey to chronicle China’s great famine between 1958 and 1961. Yang used his status as a senior reporter with the official Xinhua news agency to access archives but sometimes even that was not enough to avoid arousing suspicion with officials:

Of course, his ruse did not work every time. In Guizhou, one of China’s poorest provinces, Yang almost came undone. His colleagues took him to the provincial party compound to seek permission to access the archives. The nervous section head consulted the head of the archives, who referred the request to the deputy of the provincial party secretariat. He referred the request upwards to his boss, who then decided to consult Beijing. A query to the central government could have easily exposed the research as a sham. “We would have been finished,” Yang said. On hearing about the request to Beijing, Yang coolly excused himself, saying he would come back another time.

Launched four years ago this month, WikiLeaks’s output has been staggering and transformative. If Government Leaks manages a fraction of what its inspiration has published, it will shed light on a civil and political machine that for the most part remains mostly obscured from outsiders. The challenges facing Government Leaks are formidable and dangerous. But if the whole world is talking about a Government Leaks splash on June 1, then the imitator will have played a part in opening up China, whether the country wants to or not.

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