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China: WikiLeaks Misreading Leads to Online ‘Spy’ Hunt

This page is part of our special coverage WikiLeaks and the World.

The release of unredacted United States (US) diplomatic cables since late August 2011 by WikiLeaks, has resulted in an online witch hunt in China.

The word “informant” in the documents was misinterpreted as “Xianren” which usually refers to a “rat” or “spy” who makes a living by selling information. As a result, those civilians who appeared in the cables have been accused by nationalists as being traitors of the country, even though quite a large number of the informants are Chinese government officials or work for government think tanks.

Poster urging readers to be aware of the "Xianren" informants.

Poster urging readers to be aware of the "Xianren" informants.

Online witch hunt

Utopia, a website upholding Maoist ideology, has created a post “Who are the Xianren of the US State Council?” and singled out a number of the informants. The post has attracted many angry comments, such as:

国家危险,对汉奸不得心慈手软,呼吁全民行动锄奸!
这些个汉奸,都该死。先记下,来日算帐。
有名有姓有单位,应该统统逮捕,以叛国罪枪毙。
这些人都是操纵舆论的主力,天下事可知矣!

Our country is in danger, we should not have mercy on the traitors. People should hunt them down.
All these traitors deserve to die. Remember their name and make them payback later.
Arrest all these people and sentence them to death for betraying the nation.
All these people are manipulators of public opinion and guilty of shaping our local politics.

Extreme nationalist website Jinbushehui Net, has documented all the details of the informants who appear in the cables, as well as more than a hundred Weibo commentaries attacking law professor He Weifang.

The website has also posted a full list of the “strictly protected” informant's names on forum Weibo, urging readers [zh] to be aware of them. Another Weibo user, @ac0591, has picked out some 20 names from the 100 plus mentioned, as smearing targets. This list was further spread by another law professor Wu Fatian and attracted a lot of attention on the forum.

He Weifang has responded [zh] to the organized witch hunt on Weibo:

【惊为线人】利用许多人看不到或看不懂英文原文,将见面谈话交流对相关问题的看法歪曲为所谓“线人”提供情报,真是用心险恶啊。请问:英文原文哪里有“线人”之说?而且,照这个逻辑,几乎天天跟外国元首见面“亲切友好交谈”的党和国家领导人算什么人?

[On his surprise at being named a “Xianren”] It is an evil act to make use of people's lack of language ability and twist dialogue and exchange into “spy or rat” who provide intelligence. In the original English text, where you can find the meaning of “rat”? According to such logic, what about our party and state leaders who keep having “friendly talks” without foreign leaders on a daily basis?

Reactions and debate

After a round of debate, Wu Fatian apologised on Weibo. However, another round of heated exchange has since been triggered off with Science Cop, Fang Zhouzi‘s comments about the cables, in which he highlighted [zh] Yu Jianrong's “strictly protected” status:

根据维基解密披露的美国大使馆密电,贺卫方在2007到2009年间共与美国官员面谈过8次,次数之多在公知中排第一,但其级别还只是“保护”。于建嵘只面谈过一次就成了“严格保护”。密电称贺卫方为“大使馆关系人”(embassy contact),不是外媒和国外网站说的线人( informer)或协作者(collaborator)

According to the US diplomatic cables as released by WikiLeaks, He Weifang had met with the US embassy officials eight times between 2007-2009. The most frequent one among all of the informants. But he is still in the “protected” category. Yu Jianrong only talked to them once and became a “strictly protected” informant. The cables said that He Weifang is an “embassy contact”, not “informer” nor “collaborator” as reported by some foreign or overseas websites.

Even though Fang did not make any accusations, Yu Jianrong, a political science professor and a government think tank employee was outraged by his comment. He replies [zh] with the following statement in Weibo:

网上传本人成了美国政府"严格保护"的"线人"。现声明如下:1、本人充分相信中国国家安全部门的能力,绝对不会放过如此重大特情。2、本人一直严格遵守国家工作人员外事活动纪律,与包括美国及其它国家外交人员会见,均事前有批准,事后有汇报。3、对一切抹黑行为,本人严重鄙视。

Regarding the online rumor that I have become one of the US government's “strictly protected” informant, here is a statement: 1. I have strong belief in our country's national security system, and they would not miss such serious crime. 2. I always work according to the state regulation, which requires permission before and report after meeting any foreign diplomats.

Overseas scholar Xue Yong defends [zh] Yu Jianrong with a sense of humor:

薛涌微博:惊闻于建嵘是美国使馆的线人,被严格保护。迄今所知,他给美国人讲私有化刺激经济发展,土地财政很糟糕。俺举报他抄袭亚当斯密和国内媒体!其实他是俺的线人。他告我哈佛边上有个四川馆子很好。这才是严格意义上的情报。我问他餐馆名字和地点好赴约,他只知道“在个超市边上”。公知当线人,废物一个。

Surprised to hear that Yu Jianrong is an US embassy “Xianren” and strictly protected. What I know so far is that he talked about the problem regarding the development of privatization and local finance based on the selling of land. What he said is just copying Adam Smith and domestic media. Actually, he is my informant, he told me that there is a Sichuan restaurant near Harvard. This is information in a strict sense, the name of the restaurant and its whereabout. However, he could not even tell me the exact spot of the restaurant, just told me that it was near the supermarket. He is such an useless informant.

Many public intellectuals on Weibo helped to correct the misleading translation of “informant”. Famous blogger, WuYueShengRen writes [zh]:

何所谓“线人”?道上也叫做卧底、二五仔,提供情报给警方,然后警方去抓黑社会。把正常交流的学者与民间人士、前官方人士称作美国的“线人”,把我堂堂祖国政府视作什么了?说这话的人其心可诛——抱歉,是“猪”。这是玩笑话。一帮不掌握国家机密的文人学者,报国不但无门,卖国也轮不到他们的。

What is the meaning of “Xianren”? In the triad, they are called under-covered [ones], rats, they sell information to the cops to crack down on the triad. What is their perception of our own government when they call our scholars, civilian and former government officials US “Xianren”? These people have evil intentions, they are “pigs”. This is a joke: a bunch of scholars who do not have access to national secrets and cannot find ways to help the country, what can they sell?

Law professor Zhang Xuezhong has also spoken out [zh] to clarify the misunderstanding:

[ 我是线人吗?]如果一个外国机构向我了解对一些中国问题的看法,只要我无为该机构当间谍(或线人)的故意,且发表的言论和提供的信息并不违背中国法律,那么不管该外国机构本身的目的是什么,我的行为都没有可非议之处。外国机构也经常向中国领导人了解对一些问题的看法,但我们也不认为他们是线人。

[ Am I a Xianren?] If a foreign organization asked my opinion on Chinese current affairs, so long as I did not have the intention to become the organization's spy, and what I had said have not violated any law in China, regardless of the organization's intention, I did nothing wrong. Many foreign organizations also ask Chinese leaders to express their opinions, and they are definitely not “Xianren”.

Lawyer Pu Zhiqiang wonders [zh] why he had not been put on the informant list:

维基解密里的美方线人,有@贺卫方 @刘晓原律师2010 反倒没我啥事,我很郁闷。我准备试着一稿两投,比如搜集中国司法机关的黑恶跟公检两家的蛮横,外加黎民百姓的无助,同时寄往咱的国安部和美国的中情局,抄报日内瓦联合国总部!要做,我就做中美双料线人,而且要排在老贺前边儿!

The US informants released by WikiLeaks include He Weifang and Liu Xiaoyuen, I feel bad that I have not been included. If I were in the position of a “Xianren”, I would use a piece of information for multiple purposes. For example, collect the dark practices of the Chinese judiciary and prosecutor, the helpless situation of ordinary Chinese citizens and submit them to Chinese national security department, CIA and United Nations in Geneva! I would surpass He Weifang and become a double agent!

This page is part of our special coverage WikiLeaks and the World.

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