'Too Good to Check': Google and the Chinese Propaganda Boss

By James Fallows

Several friends and sources in China have written in to say that one of the most vivid details in the new Google/China/Wikileaks saga sounds slightly too neat and convenient to be accepted as settled fact without further exploration. This is the report that Li Changchun, head of China's entire propaganda operation, searched for his own name -- 李长春 -- on Google; got mad when he saw some of the results; and thus set about trying to rid his country of this troublesome search engine.

After a first pass through the NYT report of the redacted cables, I said this afternoon that Li "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." But in the cables this is based on a single source. Presumably the source was not Mr. Li himself; and other scenarios are possible but a little strange (an aide saw him Googling, noticed he was upset, and told friends? Or perhaps Li found this on his own and complained to his colleagues? Perhaps). Even the author of the State Department cable is careful to say that the U.S. government cannot confirm the report. A Chinese reader wrote to say that when he searched for Mr. Li's name just now, he didn't find anything bad. Of course, the reported episode was from early 2009 or before, when results could have been very different.

The Li story, while the juiciest, is not the most important aspect of the recent China cables; still it's worth noting its single-source provenance. It also kicks off the next stage of journalistic debate about the whole Wikileaks situation: the rococo ethics of how far journalists are obliged to go in re-reporting accounts from leaked but still-classified cables before summarizing those accounts in the paper. Related question: people take this kind of anecdote for granted and on trust in, say, a Bob Woodward book. What are the standards for sourcing in a classified cable? This will keep us all busy.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/12/too-good-to-check-google-and-the-chinese-propaganda-boss/67509/