Web Exclusives:Features
a PAW web exclusive column

October 24, 2001:
China and the modern world
Professor Perry Link talks about global terrorism and his book The Tiananmen Papers

Perry Link, professor of East Asian Studies, recently updated PAW on the continuing reaction to The Tiananmen Papers, the book he helped to edit. The Tiananmen Papers was published early this year and includes classified Chinese documents concerning the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. Professor Link also shared some thoughts on global terrorism.

By Fran Hulette

From your perspective as an East Asian scholar, do you have any insights into the problem of global terrorism?

I gave a course a couple of years ago called Literary Response to Disaster and Repression. We looked at Maoist China, the bombing of Hiroshima, Cambodia under Pol Pot, and, of course, the Holocaust. We asked what is common in the ways human beings respond to disasters, and what is culturally determined — either in what is expressed or the way it is expressed. It was really exhilarating to find the commonality, the basic humanness of responses. For example, the survivors of Hiroshima, according to one famous writer who interviewed them, didn't want to be tapped on the shoulder and interviewed about their feelings. More than anything, they wanted to return to routines of normal life, to get back the semblance of normalcy so the world wouldn't fall apart.

I noticed this about myself. I taught classes two days after the World Trade Center attack, and I was advising freshmen on September 11. I wanted, and I think the students wanted, to keep going with what we would have been doing anyway as kind of a defense mechanism from the shock.

I watched the news from China pretty closely. Chinese people have viewed the U.S. with a mixture of admiration and envy for a long time. We're viewed as the biggest, the strongest, the wealthiest country. Down underneath, Chinese people feel "we should be the biggest, the strongest, the wealthiest." So there's envy mixed with admiration, a love-hate sort of thing.

In the Balkans war, when the U.S. accidentally bombed the Belgrade embassy, there were angry demonstrations against the U.S. on the streets of China. On the surface, there's been this kind of resentment of U.S. power. But after September 11 there were few reactions like "well those guys got what they deserved." Mostly the shell broke down, and the Chinese, not just the government, but ordinary people, saw us as ordinary people. We too are victims and suffer when bombs fall. You hate to say something good comes out of such a disaster, but in a sense that is a good result. It leads people in China and perhaps elsewhere in the world to view us more as fellow suffering human beings rather than as some hegemonic power.

China convicted two scholars on charges of spying and detained several others in the spring. What has the situation been for foreign academics since that time?

The people in the two most prominent cases have both been convicted and released. One of these, a scholar named Li Shaomin received his doctorate in sociology from Princeton. He's gone back to Hong Kong where he had been a professor of marketing, and he's chosen wisely to lie low since his goal was to get back to his job in Hong Kong and his family there. If he'd protested, he might have been barred from Hong Kong. But he was quiet and was allowed to go back, which in essence proves his innocence in the eyes of most people. If he'd really been a spy, there's no way the Chinese government would have let him back into Hong Kong.

The other case was a woman named Gao Zhan, who recently published her story in the New York Times. She took the opposite tack. She told her story immediately, as soon as she got out. She said, "They threatened me if I told what happened but the story's true and I trust America."

Now another case has come to light. The New Jersey family of a man who was arrested about 18 months ago has spoken out. The man had been a consultant for a drug company. Whenever someone is arrested in China, the government tells that person to be quiet or it's going to get worse for him and his relatives. So there's big pressure on people not to tell their stories.

Charges in such cases are not announced until the trial. Then matters are very pro forma: You are accused of spying, you're guilty, your sentence is 10 years. The next day officials might say, "We're releasing you on medical parole." This is a formula the Chinese government has used several times in order to "solve" cases that are difficult from a diplomatic point of view. These cases are well enough known that the New York Times writes about them or Colin Powell raises them with the Chinese government. They're an irritation. On one hand, the Chinese government doesn't want to acknowledge a mistake so it makes a conviction. But, on the other hand, it wants to get rid of the irritant, so it releases people on some excuse, often a medical excuse.

How will these developments affect the future of academics conducting research in China?

The biggest effect in my view is psychological. The number of actual known cases is still very small, somewhere between five and eight. I personally know six or eight similar cases but those individuals kept it quiet. These friends tell me there are lots and lots of other cases so there's kind of a bottom of an iceberg to this problem. In the two prominent cases I discussed, both people deny entirely that they did anything like spying. They were baffled by the charges. I believe them. The reason they're arrested and charged and publicized is to warn all other Chinese-American scholars not to do anything of the sort that is charged. Whatever you do, stay away from anything like this.

The people most at risk are ethnic Chinese who have ties to the U.S. There's this unspoken threat, that causes people to phrase carefully what they say in public so they don't get on a blacklist like the one I'm on. If they're Chinese-Americans, it's even worse. People here watch what they say because their relatives and friends in China could suffer.

If you're held in a detention center in China, you can be physically threatened. One thing police do is leave the lights on 24 hours a day and Kang Zhengguo, writing in the New York Review of Books, said there was even a rule against covering your eyes. The constant light is a mild physical punishment. Inducing other inmates to beat you up is another. Inmates can get rewarded if they pick on you. Local authorities don't want to be in a position where they're obviously guilty of beating prisoners, so they do it indirectly. That's about as physical as it gets. There is no terrorism though.

Can you explain the Chinese government's policy of neibu and why scholars have violated it?

Neibu means internal, and in broad principle, it's the same thing as "classified" in our system. There are written materials that are not supposed to be publicly available. In China it's more Byzantine even than in our country. There are different levels of classification. The most top-secret things are designated to be viewed by, literally, a short list of top leaders — six or seven people. Then there are documents everyone in central government can see, then some everyone in provincial government can see. The lowest level materials are what party members can see. They even have a category that allows everybody inside China to view something but not export it.

In 1979-80, I lived in China for a year doing literary research. I ran across lower level materials pretty frequently. Of course, the lowest level variety I was allowed to see as long as I was in China. I just was not supposed to export it. Currently, the biggest circulation paper in China is Reference News that, in theory, only party members and officials are supposed to read. But today it's sold openly on newsstands for about a dime. Nobody pays attention to the restriction anymore.

What Gao, Li, and others were accused of doing was gathering, reading, and collecting internal materials for export. On a purely literal level, they probably did that. But the reason why it's arbitrary punishment is because virtually everybody does that. So the question isn't why did they do that, but why were they, as opposed to everybody else, singled out to be charged. In my own case too, it's baffling. I've been on a blacklist since 1996, and I've asked why several times and the government won't say. The most response I get is indirectly by asking friends and the answer always comes back, "You yourself should know the reason."

It may not be a particular thing I did, just a generalized image of me as someone who criticizes the government too much. On the other hand, it could be a particular article of mine or a friendship with somebody. I have a lot of friends who are called Chinese dissidents. I don't seek them out because they're dissidents; they're just friends. It's clearly a technique to charge a person but leave the content of the charges vague. This induces the person charged to volunteer material and curtail activity across the board. If you don't know what you did wrong, the natural tendency — if you want to get off a blacklist — is to pull back in every direction. That's better for the authorities. If they name exactly what you did, and you say, "Okay, I'll stop doing X," then the mechanism doesn't work anymore.You yourself were kicked out of China in 1996. Can you share the circumstances of that experience and why you believe it happened?

I landed at the airport in August 1996, and after an hour or so at the immigration desk, was told I wasn't welcome in the country. Officials escorted me to the United Airlines counter and told United workers they would have to pay a hotel for me that night because I'd come in without a valid visa — even though I did have one. So I spent a night with four young policemen sleeping in the same room. We talked about all kinds of things and they basically weren't bad guys. One of them did jostle me at one point, not to really hurt me, just to let me know if push comes to shove, we have more shove. I told them I wouldn't resist and was ready to leave the next day. Then they actually relaxed and we had some interesting conversations. They were amused I could speak Chinese and asked about life in America.

The next day they escorted me on to the plane. I've tested the waters (to return to China) two or three times since then and get rejected. The last time I tried my passport came back in an envelope with my application fee check. Everything else had been confiscated with no explanation. My exclusion from China is open-ended.

My reason for going was to work on Princeton in Beijing, our language training summer school. It's the best in the world, and we get top students. It has nothing to do with politics. We're trying to train young Americans to speak, read, and understand Chinese well, and we really work hard at it. I was going to Beijing to prepare the staff for the following summer. Ever since 1994, my colleague Chih-ping Chou has had to go every summer, putting a considerable strain on his time and family life. I'm the one who should substitute but the Chinese government won't let me help anymore.

As one of the editors of "The Tiananmen Papers," you have come under fire from the Chinese government for publishing phony documents. How do you defend the authenticity of your publication?

I really don't try to defend it anymore. I'm convinced the documents are authentic and that examination of these documents by qualified people more and more shows they're authentic. To me the most dramatic evidence the documents' authenticity is that the Chinese government itself, while issuing a sort of blanket statement that the documents are phony, has reacted very sensitively to publication. They said this is the worst leak of documents that's happened since our country was founded in 1949. They've put out guidelines to curtail people reproducing The Tiananmen Papers and anybody carrying copies into China is subject to a prison sentence. This big effort to stop the spread of these documents and punish those involved in the leak is dramatic evidence to me that they're genuine. If the documents were fake, the officials would just say so and go on with their daily lives.

Another reason is the lack of explanation of exactly what is phony. The Tiananmen Papers is a huge book in Chinese — three times as long as in English — and contains an immense amount of detail. It couldn't have been made up with 100 percent accuracy. It would be fairly easy for the government to show that it's phony, but officials haven't even tried to.

I know the man who gave the documents to us. My coeditor and I asked very detailed questions and after a while it became impossible to entertain the notion he had faked it. To concoct such an elaborate lie, then stay consistent with it in front of two American scholars who are peppering you with questions is a mind-boggling task.

Do you think the book's recent publication in Chinese will open dialogue on political reform in China?

It's hard to measure that. Certainly there's been dialogue and complex multifaceted conversations about the Tiananmen massacre, who was responsible, and whether or not it should be reevaluated. Until now, the official stance has been that it was a counterrevolutionary rebellion by evil people with backing from hostile overseas forces. It's an image that is very farfetched. The compiler of these documents, who was inside the government, and a lot of intellectuals and students on the outside would like the government to acknowledge that it was a democracy movement. If that happened, it would have political rumblings all the way down to the substructure of the government. The ones who ordered the massacre would lose power. The ones who had been on the students' side would gain power. This is the reason why the compiler brought these things to be published. He and his group want to bring about democratization and more openness of the press.

From my point of view as a scholar, and the reason I agreed to work on The Tiananmen Papers wasn't to manipulate contemporary Chinese politics. I was interested because I do think they're authentic materials and they show the inside workings of a major government in an unprecedented way. It's great historical material that teaches us a lot.

My motivation and the compiler's were not the same. His main goal was to bring about a shift in Chinese politics and move the Chinese government in a more democratic direction. My goal and that of the main editor, Andrew J. Nathan of Columbia University, was to do the scholar's job of bringing truth to light. In this project, the two goals intersected.

Fran Hulette is a freelance writer in Lawrenceville, New Jersey.