Must-Read: NYT-WikiLeaks on China and Google

The latest in the NYT's presentation of of Wikileaks documents, focusing on Chinese government efforts to control the internet in general and Google in particular, has just gone up on the NYT site. It is absolutely riveting for anyone interested in any of the component elements (Google, China, The Internet, etc; previous Google-China postings here.)

Read the NYT report for yourself here, with links to specific cables. Later this afternoon, on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered, I will be discussing this with Audie Cornish. [Segment is here.] But at first glance, here are the details that jump out at me.

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- The role of Li Changchun. He is the propaganda chief for all of China -- that's him at right --  a 66-year old electrical engineer with very limited experience outside the country or its governing hierarchy. He reportedly was incensed to discover "critical" remarks when he did a Google search of his own name (a mistake even if you're not a senior Chinese Communist official) and was inspired to kick off a campaign to make Google's life difficult inside China.

- The bogusness of the 'Netizen' argument. When the Google-China showdown began, a number of Chinese web commentators said that Google was simply looking for a face-saving way to get out of a market where it was coming in second to Baidu. That was ridiculous- sounding at the time (as I argued here), and this evidence suggests that it was always flatly wrong. The Chinese government was concerned about Google because it seemed potentially so strong (and attractive), not because it was in any way weak.

- The 'disorganized hacker' vs 'planned attack' debate. When it comes to online attacks, the endless debate is: are we mainly talking about "normal" criminals, vandals, con men, and young computer experts who are trying to see what they can find? Or are we talking about instruments of state policy? I wrote an article about this early this year. Both kinds of attacks, and others, will continue -- but these cables show that U.S. government officials believed that there was a large amount of planned, coordinated Chinese-government efforts against foreign individuals, institutions, and companies.

Thumbnail image for BJAirport4.jpg- The Google Maps controversy. This cable, in particular, discusses the Chinese government's requests to the U.S. government, to make Google fuzz up or alter some of its Google Earth imagery, to avoid revealing "sensitive" locations. This is a longer discussion for another time (previous mention here or here), but the perceived subversive power of maps and satellite images in many societies is profound. For instance, as I've mentioned before, Google Earth shows a gigantic airport on the west side of Beijing (right) that I have never seen on a Beijing city map. I've meant for months to do a post about the odd aspect of online satellite imagery of China: if you go to a site with both a "map" and a "satellite" view and click back and forth, you'll see that they don't exactly match. There's an offset built into almost all of them. Main point: the cables show that the Chinese officials are well aware of what these images can mean.

- The Google/USG common front. Early this year it was notable, and somewhat strange, that Google seemed in effect to stand shoulder to shoulder with the US government in complaining about Chinese internet controls. This appearance was strongest when Hillary Clinton gave her (very forceful) speech about internet openness on the heels of the Google case. The reason it seemed strange was that Google would seem to have a lot to lose, especially in the eyes of the Chinese public, by allying too closely with a foreign government. The cables suggest that the Chinese government in effect encouraged an alliance, by treating Google as a de facto arm of foreign/US influence.

- Who comes out looking better. The original statements by Google (starting with David Drummond's announcement) stand up well in the light of this new information. The cables themselves are impressive in their lucidity -- well, except for the deleted parts. As many people have mentioned, a wholly unanticipated consequence of the Wikileaks episode may be raising the esteem of the U.S. diplomatic corps that is providing these observations from around the world. Granted, this is a one-sided perspective, recording events from the U.S. observers' point of view; still, I think it will lessen rather than enhance outside opinion of the Chinese government's motivations and breadth of view.  I suspect that a comparable trove of Treasury Department cables, reporting dealings with their very sophisticated Chinese counterparts, would give a very different impression.

There's more, but go read the cables to see.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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