BEIJING — This capital city’s skies were clogged with pollution, as is often the case, and China’s government was concerned. So it summoned officials of the American embassy here to a meeting.
But the session had nothing to do with hazy skies. Rather, Chinese officials were peeved that the Americans were monitoring pollution themselves, and posting their more precise findings, which usually judged the smog far worse than official Chinese readings, on Twitter for anyone to read.
Chinese officials feared the conflicting information “might lead to ‘social consequences,’ ” an American embassy cable quoted the officials as saying. So could the Americans please block Chinese citizens from visiting the Web site?
That July 2008 cable, posted on the Wikileaks Web site on Friday, is one of hundreds from the American embassy in Beijing that offer a glimpse into the depths, and heights, of relations between the United States and the Chinese government. The cables, involving secret but not highly sensitive correspondence between the two powers, cover topics ranging from China’s claims on the South China Sea to the daily exercise regimen that the Chongqing Communist Party secretary, Bo Xilai, designed for himself.
Their revelation appears unlikely to ruffle diplomatic relations. But they could lead to serious consequences for Chinese academics, students and others who talked frankly to American officials, and who are identified, either by name or by precise description, in cables dealing with analyses of Chinese positions.
The New York Times and other newspapers had previously reproduced some of the cables, redacting the identities of people who might be endangered should their names become known. But the entire trove of secret State Department cables obtained by WikiLeaks last year, replete with the names of confidential sources, was initially released by accident, and then quickly reposted last week on numerous Web sites.
Among the cables that named confidential sources were analyses of China’s social stability, the isolated political position of Premier Wen Jiabao and tensions between China’s majority Han population and ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang, the western region that has been plagued by violence in recent years.
Most of those sources’ comments were unremarkable. But the fact that they were made to American government officials could draw harsh punishment in some cases.
The cables span the tenure of two American presidents and one Chinese, Hu Jintao. A number of them have been previously made public. They describe a crucial global relationship that is warm in some aspects and conspicuously icy in others.
One lengthy report on 2009 military talks between the Pentagon and the People’s Liberation Army noted that the senior Chinese official, Lt. Gen. Ma Xiaotian, prolonged an hour-long discussion by an additional 30 minutes to attack American arms sales to Taiwan and American military reconnaissance within China’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.
General Ma also said China’s analysts did not believe that American missile defenses were in fact defensive, arguing that they could also be used as an anti-satellite force, and that American controls over its nuclear arsenal were inadequate.
The cables include a stream of messages from American to Chinese officials about the proliferation of nuclear weapons and missile technology, usually from North Korea or from Chinese companies to Iran. In cable after cable, Americans warn of attempts by an Iranian front company in Malaysia to purchase nuclear components; a North Korean flight to Iran, via Beijing, that may have carried ballistic missile experts; and Iranian efforts to buy aluminum plates from a Chinese company for use in cruise missiles. Other cables cited Chinese companies’ efforts to sell prohibited technologies or materials to Pakistan.
What the Chinese did with the warnings is not stated. In some cables, Chinese officials repeated the government’s firm commitment to control nuclear and missile proliferation, and pledged to pass the messages to relevant agencies, In others, they expressed doubts about the veracity or completeness of American information.
And in several cases, the American embassy was forced to use go-betweens in the Chinese government, apparently because Chinese arms-control offices had suspended contacts with Washington in the wake of American weapons sales to Taiwan.