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China blocks WikiLeaks webpage, orders news medias not to report on the Wikileaks dump

Posted by Author on November 29, 2010

Wall Street Journal, November 29, 2010 –

Can the world’s most elaborate censorship system put the clamps on the Internet’s most prolific source of confidential information?

A day after WikiLeaks began to release a quarter-million diplomatic cables sent from U.S. embassies, propaganda authorities in Beijing appear to be trying to control how much of the content of those cables leaks through to the Chinese public.

As of Monday evening in Beijing, the WikiLeaks “Cablegate” page was blocked by China’s Great Firewall—a rudimentary first-step on China’s censorship checklist.
More significantly, Chinese news media have received orders not to report on the Wikileaks dump, according to two people familiar with the situation at state broadcaster CCTV and online news portal Sohu.com. That fits with rumors of a WikiLeak news block that circulated among China-based Twitter users earlier on Monday.

The government almost never publicly explains the reasoning behind news bans, so it’s unclear if censors object to specific material contained in the cables or are leery of the WikiLeaks concept more generally.

According to WikiLeaks’ calculations, China appears in more than 8,300 of the cables—good enough for fifth place, behind Israel and just ahead of Afghanistan. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing accounts for 3,300 of the roughly 250,000 cables WikiLeaks claims to have in its possession. Six of the Beijing embassy cables have been released on the site so far.

Contained in the cables are assertions that could make things awkward between China and the U.S., including suggestions that China ignored a U.S. request to stop transfers of ballistic missile technology Tehran and offered Kyrgyzstan $3 billion to close a U.S. airbase there.

Another cable, not yet released on the website but seen by the Guardian, quotes an unnamed source saying China’s Politburo—the powerful governing group within the Communist Party-–directed hacking attacks against Google after one of its members searched his own name on the U.S. company’s site and didn’t like what he saw.

But in a country where “dissemination of state secrets” is a serious crime, the news block might just be a sign of unease with the concept of a website dedicated to exposing government communications.

In 2005, Chinese journalist Shi Tao was sentenced to ten years in prison for allegedly using his Yahoo account to provide “top level state secrets” to foreign news organizations.

Last year, the government arrested four employees of Australian mining company Rio Tinto on state secrets charges, although they were later tried and convicted on the lesser charge of stealing commercial secrets.

The block may also just be prophylactic—a way for censors to temporarily quash a story until they decide what parts of it they want revealed.

So far, a rush of initial Chinese reports on the leak—including a special section dedicated to them on the popular NetEase news portal—remain available through searches on Baidu and Google, although none of the coverage appears to deal with the China-related cables.

If the conversation on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like microblogging service, is any indication, some of the China-related information has still managed to slip through.

“WikiLeaks is so powerful,” one user wrote. “I finally understand why the Chinese government needs to build so many ports and railways in those “xxstan” countries.”

“This times WikiLeaks not only embarrassed the U.S., but also China,” wrote another. “Whether the Iran issue or the Kyrgyzstan thing, it’s all a lesson that China should be a responsible power and not just sit around watching other countries make fools of themselves.”

Wall Street Journal

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