Vetting the "Tiananmen Papers"

Berkeley professor Orville Schell discusses his role in the publication of papers that shed new light on the Chinese government's crackdown on the 1989 student uprising.


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Daryl Lindsey
February 2, 2001 2:00PM (UTC)

The "Tiananmen Papers" may not be quite as explosive as the "Pentagon Papers." They won't help stop a war, because the battle has already been won by China's Communist government. But they do provide an important missing piece in the puzzling history of the bloody 1989 crackdown on the student movement.

For 12 years, the most complete history of the uprising has come from foreign media reports and the accounts of students who had either fled China or dared to speak out in defiance of the party. Now, with the publication of the "Tiananmen Papers," we have access to what purports to be the naked record of the decision-making that led to the crackdown from the highest levels of the Chinese government.

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But critics have questioned how authoritative the "Tiananmen Papers" should be considered, given how difficult it is to prove their authenticity. The documents have been compiled by the pseudonymous Zhang Liang, who has refused to disclose his real identity or that of the individuals he worked with to obtain the documents.

Orville Schell, dean of the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism and respected Sinologist, was one of three professors who helped compile and publish the English edition of the "Tiananmen Papers." Salon recently spoke to Schell about his role in vetting the documents.

What are the most important revelations and lessons to take away from the "Tiananmen Papers"?

What we see are people struggling to make decisions that will keep China together. We also see conservatives, led by Li Peng, fighting against the reformers. Perhaps the most interesting revelation is that we see that the government, the Standing Committee of the Politburo, really did not have the prerogative to make decisions on how the government should deal with major problems. It sort of broke down two for [dialogue with the students and democratic reforms], two against and an abstention. But who really made the decisions was Deng Xiaoping and the Council of Elders, who had no formal decision-making prerogative. But there had been a 1987 secret agreement that Xiaoping would have veto power and oversight.

The Elders always had people at the Standing Committee meetings. This government never had a very confirmed, at least legally binding decision-making structure. And what it did have was violated again and again by these marauding Elders, and the Standing Committee of the Politburo deferred to them, except for Zhao Ziyang, who quit.

Was the publication of the "Tiananmen Papers" the first time this relationship was exposed?

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It was revealed at one point when [Mikhail] Gorbachev arrived and party chief Zhao Ziyang spoke with him. Then he went on television and made a bold revelation that Deng Xiaoping was really making the decisions. He got very sternly criticized by the Chinese for revealing this in public.

The international press corps thought it was interesting, but no one quite put it all together to look at how the decisions had been made because we didn't know. Gorbachev had just blurted out that Comrade Deng Xiaoping is still in control. This gives us a clear idea how this nonsystem overruled the already shaky system. The other revelation is that there was no process in selecting Jiang Zemin as the current party chief and president [after deposing Zhao Ziyang]. The Elders just said, "What about him?" They catapulted him up from Shanghai and stuck him at the head of the government.

The documents portray former Premier Li Peng as a conservative hard-liner who conspired against the reformers.

I must say that my reading is that he is a person trying to do what any good Leninist would do to live up to his principles, to maintain party discipline. I felt he was a much more honorable person as a result of reading this book.

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What was the cost to those who pushed for dialogue?

Most of them were defrocked. Some of them have come back in less grand ways into government. But they're there, sort of like recessive genes waiting to express themselves. That's what I think these documents suggest if they're real -- they won't go away in a hurry.

Motive is always an important component in vetting a story or set of documents. What was Zhang Liang's motive for coming to you with the "Tiananmen Papers"?

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There were aspects of this project which were much murkier than his motives -- which were self-confessed, in a very articulate fashion, without any ambiguity. They were simple: to try to break the logjam on political reform in China and to do that by reinvigorating the process.

Does he stand to gain politically from the book's release?

[Zhang] definitely aspires to be able to work in China and to work in the government at some time in the future. His motive is not to flee and be done with it. But I think he sees himself very much as a part of the ongoing political process in China.

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Have you heard reports about whether the "Tiananmen Papers" have had an impact inside Beijing and Zhongnanhai? Have China's leaders taken note?

There are two levels of impact. One is that there's no doubt about it that it has generated an enormous amount of discussion both outside of China and inside. There's lots of e-mail, lots of things flying around the Internet. Those who care are becoming aware inside China. The issue has been raised in a very public way in the rest of the world. China is no longer discreetly separated from the rest of the world.

The second level, of course, is within the government itself. There's been relatively little response. So how do we read that? Well, maybe the response is yet to come in a more detailed refutation or in a condemnation. But if it doesn't happen, and we're already a couple of weeks into this now, that might suggest, and I think it's the case, that there are a very large number of people within the government who agree that the issue of 1989 has to be put on the table. The question of political reform must simply be reopened at some time in the near future. It cannot be suffocated perpetually.

Why is the Chinese government calling the book a fabrication?

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Well, you know, their denial was very weak, it was very flabby. They said that no fabrications and distortions would be tolerated. The headline said they called it a fake, but they didn't really. They just used the words fabrication and distortion in a kind of vague imputation.

It was such an offhanded statement made by the foreign ministry's information officer; I think it was at a regular press briefing made by a guy whose job is to flack for whatever the government line is at the moment. It's hard to read too much into it. What I read was that they're in a holding pattern on it. They hadn't read it and they don't know what to say about it. They just sort of throw something out, which keeps the prospect open that they can react in the future.

Writer Dai Qing spent 10 months in a Chinese jail for her role in the Tiananmen uprising. In a Hong Kong interview, she told the Boston Globe that she believes Zhang Liang did get some of the documents from the government, but she also asserts that he may have created some of them for political purposes. She says, "All of my friends in Beijing can't believe these papers are 100 percent true"; some of the details are wrong.

I'm curious to know if she's read them. How could she have? She made these statements early on as I recall. I know her. Then again, she may be right. That's the tricky part about dealing with documents on closed governments. You do your best to authenticate them.

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Specifically, Dai Qing criticized a point in the book where the son of General Xu Haidong refused to deploy troops into Tiananmen Square as martial law was ordered. She said that she played with Xu's kids when she was growing up, and that she didn't recall any of them becoming military officers.

I do recall something about that one person. You have to remember that it's perfectly plausible that even though the documents might be authentic, that they, too, have things that are wrong. Then there's the second line of possible error that we got something wrong, particularly in translation. When you're dealing with thousands of pages in a foreign language with many translators and a laborious editing process, it's perfectly possible that something slipped. She could be right, but it still wouldn't necessarily impugn all of the documents.

It may also be a question of interpretation.

I want to say very clearly that we can't say with absolute certainty that these documents are absolutely authentic, that they are not in some way edited within the text or that some documents are left out or that some could conceivably have been altered. This is possible. But we did the best we could and we were finally confronted with two possibilities: not doing them or concluding that we thought they seemed to be authentic and had merit and, with those cautionary and very honestly declared ambiguities, proceed [with publication].

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You justify that action in your afterword by writing that it would be an act of "passive suppression" if you didn't publish the "Tiananmen Papers."

There's nothing in it for the three of us. There's no reason we would ever want to become involved with these. We're not going to make any money. All we have to lose is our reputations if we don't do a forthright and honest job. As we perceived it, our job was to append a cautionary word to these documents to explain what we had done to satisfy ourselves that they probably were with merit, and to put them out there.

This was Liang's project. In a way, we were just the facilitators for the English-language edition. We were not and are not on a crusade.

What steps were taken to vet the documents?

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First, we read them and compared them with what else is known, for inconsistencies. We looked at documentary collections, scholarly work, memoirs and stuff that appeared in the press. I was involved in making "The Gate of Heavenly Peace," which was a three-hour documentary about these events. Perry Link and I were in China at the time [leading up to the Tiananmen uprising]; and Andrew Nathan has written a great deal about the subject. We then sent early versions of the manuscript to a number of other scholars and people who were involved in intelligence work in other governments around the world.

The most reassuring aspect of our due diligence was that we had the chance to speak with, get to know and literally grill the compiler. This is the missing link in most documents that are leaked from such [closed] governments. If they have no provenance in the form of a transmitter who sticks with the project, it makes it impossible to find out if the transmitter had a legitimate position, if he understands the context.

Did you have a familiarity with Chinese government documents and the protocol that is used to create them? And did that knowledge help you to vet the "Tiananmen Papers"?

There are some that have leaked out, but this was really quite a milestone in documents from China. There have been other internal studies, documents or one thing or another than have come out, but nothing like this. We learned a tremendous amount about how documents are circulated throughout the country from the provinces, how minutes and transcripts are kept, what is the organizational structure for maintaining them. We also learned how the archives work. Who gets to take things out. How they sign them out. What kind of protection the government requires. This was a whole education in its own right. And the fact that we could learn about it from a variety of sources was quite a revelation.

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Much of your vetting came from direct contact with Zhang Liang, who delivered the documents to you, and becoming comfortable with him. You're a journalism professor. Stephen Glass was masterful at making up stories and convincing his editors and fact-checkers that his reporting was real. How did you make the publication of the "Tiananmen Papers" bulletproof?

I came into this project about a year ago with great skepticism. I still retain a certain amount of skepticism, and I think we're quite honest about that. But I did have a chance, again, to discuss everything with this compiler. He may be a master forger, but that's not our impression. But the fact is that he's hung around, made himself available to discuss all sorts of peripheral issues. Had he not been around, had this document collection just been dumped as they often are, then you would have entered a real shadowland that makes it instantly more difficult to derive any final sense of confidence.

As a journalism professor, how would you advise your students to handle documents like these if they landed in their hands under the same circumstances and they couldn't be corroborated to the extent that many newspapers and publications would require?

With extreme caution. I think the fact that there were three of us who've all been around the block a few times meant we could really discuss this. We know a lot of colleagues who we discussed it with. There's a group of about 150 scholars, journalists and diplomats specializing in China, who e-mail articles and comments on an e-mail list. It's a constant discussion, like an e-mail chat room. The reaction there hasn't been tremendously skeptical. People seem to accept them. And many of these people have had a very close experience with this whole period of history. The fact that they don't really disclose any smoking guns -- there isn't, in a way, a lot of new interpretation in these documents. What it does is fleshes out the narrative on the other side of the wall. We knew the student side; we knew what went on in the streets. We did not know what was going on inside Zhongnanhai, the leadership compound.

If the democracy movement hadn't been stamped out, what would China be like today?

The party fears that it would have gone the path of Russia -- collapse, chaos, disunity. A more sanguine scenario would have been that Zhao Ziyang would have been able to allow some sort of political reform to take place and slowly let China evolve into something that was more open politically.

But in many respects, China is much more open than it was at the time of the Tiananmen uprising and massacre. Trade relations have been vastly expanded -- last year the United States normalized trade relations with Beijing, cracking open the door for World Trade Organization membership. And the Chinese, for the most part, have held to their promise to allow freedom in Hong Kong.

In a certain way, Hong Kong has shown that they will take a reasonably hands-off approach, though they are clamping down in Hong Kong in certain ways. One has to be very impressed with the ability of the party after 1989 to regain control, to reinstitute economic reform to allow a very impressive measure of personal freedom in lifestyle areas. Where you want to work, who you want to marry, where you want to live, what movies you want to watch, how you want to travel. What you can say in private.

What about the media or political dissent?

At the end of the 1980s, there was a real movement by the press to open up -- to have investigative reporting, even to pass a press law protecting the right of journalists to write openly. All that was stopped. That's a very refractory, retarded area in terms of reform. The media is still under the aegis of the propaganda department. It still suffers lots of censorship. The old system is still very much intact. This would be an area one would have to say has changed very little.

Is China's more open market making freedom of expression easier for the people of China?

The Chinese have effected an interesting "market Leninism" -- will it ultimately force more freedom of expression? I think it will certainly help, but it doesn't get you there. You can't rely on the markets to get you a political system. That doesn't mean I don't think open markets are an elemental part of an open society. But at some point, they're going to have to ask: What kind of country do we want to be if we keep evolving at such a rapid rate?

The fact that someone had the courage to come forward with these documents will encourage others to come forward with documents?

It could. If the government begins to really engage in a battle to impugn these documents, it could precipitate a whole struggle to bring forth other documents to prove them wrong. There's a lot of animosity toward the government's tendency to spin things, much less sometimes to just outright lie.


Daryl Lindsey

Daryl Lindsey is associate editor of Salon News and an Arthur Burns fellow. He currently lives in Berlin and writes for Salon and Die Welt.

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