The following post is part of a new series that brings a fresh perspective to global news from our team of foreign correspondents
Some of China’s top academics and human rights activists are being attacked as “rats” and “spies” after their names were revealed as U.S. Embassy sources in the unredacted WikiLeaks cables that have now been posted online.
The release of the previously protected names has sparked an online witch-hunt by Chinese nationalist groups, with some advocating violence against those now known to have met with U.S. Embassy staff. “When the time comes, they should be arrested and killed,” reads one typical posting on a prominent neo-Maoist website.
The repercussions could indeed be dire in some circumstances, particularly for Tibetan and Uighur activists exposed as having passed information to Washington. In other cases – including some Communist Party officials named as “protected” or “strictly protected” sources – the fallout is more likely to be embarrassment or perhaps lost promotions.
Also named are some of China’s most outspoken intellectuals, including some known for pushing reform of the country’s authoritarian political system. They may now see themselves painted as “American agents,” their arguments for change shoved further to the margins.
Many of the names revealed in the cables sent to Washington by the embassy in Beijing are unsurprising. The China-based political officers seem to have gathered most of their information from the same sources that are often quoted in Chinese and Western media. Most of the “protected” sources appear to have said little to the U.S. Embassy that they haven’t said in public before and since.
But for academics like Yu Jianrong, a well-known researcher at the state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and He Weifang, an outspoken law professor at Beijing University – who were already walking a fine line as critics of the government working within the system – that may not matter. Thanks to the cables, it will now be hard for them to convince some Chinese that their ideas aren’t inspired by the U.S. Embassy.
“The problem this creates for them is it paints them as leaning to one side … as being anti-Party and pro-Western,” said Joshua Rosenzweig, a Hong Kong-based human-rights researcher.
In an interview, Prof. He – who is mentioned eight times in the cables and identified as a “protected” source – said he was unbothered by the publication of his name, though he puzzled over what it meant to be “protected.” He said he would have no problem meeting with Embassy personnel in the future. “This is just normal communication,” he said.
Particularly difficult to foresee is how being identified as a U.S. Embassy source will affect those whose allegiance was previously not in question. Among the Communist Party figures named in the cables are top journalists at state-run news organizations, instructors at Party schools and a deputy mayor.
One “strictly protected” source named in the cables is Yu Jiafu, a former top journalist at the state-run Xinhua news agency. He is currently two years into an 18-year jail term after being convicted in 2009 of passing Chinese state secrets to Japan.
The unredacted cables also give the real names of some prominent Chinese bloggers and Twitter users, who previously were known only by their screen names.