Professor's book offers inside look at Chinese government

Feb. 16, 2001, 3:47 p.m.

Princeton Professor Perry Link had before him either a smuggled trove of secret Chinese government documents or a masterful but brazen forgery.

The prospects were both tantalizing and alarming.

"Of course I am aware of the possibility of document forgery and would not have wanted to spend hours and hours working on phonies. A number of factors convinced me that the materials were authentic," Link said.

"The Tiananmen Papers" (published in January by Public Affairs Press in New York) provide a first-time look behind the scenes at Chinese government decision making. The book contains hundreds of pages of intelligence reports, minutes of high-level meetings and records of conversations among top Chinese leaders during the student-led demonstrations in the spring of 1989. A bloody military crackdown June 4 ended the nationwide democracy movement, the largest in the history of China.

In near-total secrecy, Link, professor of East Asian studies, and his co-editor, Andrew Nathan, professor of political science at Columbia University, translated the collection into English with the help of a few collaborators who wish to remain anonymous. They also labored to verify the facts and found a publisher for the book.

The Chinese government has suggested the new documents are fabrications. Some Western experts have questioned their authenticity as well, but the editors remain confident.

Link, a specialist in Chinese language, literature and cultural history who was in Beijing during the spring of 1989, said he was convinced because of the immense detail of the material, conversations he had face-to-face with the source and independent verification of the facts.

"The signs out of China since the publication of our book all tend to confirm that the materials are authentic," Link added. "On Jan. 21, chillingly, the Supreme People's Court in Beijing published new guidelines for punishment of people who divulge state secrets to foreigners. And President Jiang Zemin himself recently commented publicly on the book to a Japanese journalist -- something I don't think he would have done for something he considered fake. Moreover, no knowledgeable Chinese person to whom I have shown the materials -- in English or in Chinese -- has doubted their basic authenticity."

"The speculations all center on who arranged the leak and why. I myself do not feel confident on questions of why the leak happened. And I wonder about how the compiler made his selections about what to provide -- what to include and what to exclude. There are stories to tell here, and I believe they will emerge over time. But I do not doubt the basic authenticity of the materials," Link said.

Link was brought into the project by Nathan, a long-time friend and colleague who had been approached by the source. The editors said they are compelled out of consideration for their source's safety to protect his identity. In their book, the person who copied the documents and spirited them out of China is referred to as "the compiler" and uses the pseudonym Zhang Liang.

Zhang writes in the preface of the book that his motivations for taking the records public are to achieve an accurate evaluation of what happened June 4, and to re-ignite discussions of political reform in China.

Just before ordering the troops to move in, the Communist Party determined the democracy movement was nothing short of a counterrevolutionary riot, implying the students sought to overthrow, imprison or kill the country's leaders. Since June 4, activists and others have appealed to the party to recognize its mistakes and reverse the verdict. Zhang believes the new facts might help those efforts.

While the book confirms general impressions of how the crackdown came about, it also reveals new details about the top leadership's split over continued negotiations with the students. In addition, the documents divulge the fears of the elderly leaders and the ways officials manipulated those sentiments.

The editors said that never in Chinese history has such a complete insider's account been afforded. "This is the first time in history this has happened," Link said. "So for sinologists, this is a gold mine because you can see that view and you can feel the texture of how these people talk to each other. And, it comes to life in a way that before was either not lively at all or, if it was it was anecdotal, you didn't know whether to rely on it."

When the compiler initially approached Nathan, former director of the East Asian Institute at Columbia, he wanted the documents published in Chinese first. But publishers in Hong Kong and Taiwan balked at the prospect for political and financial reasons, Link said.

The book's success in English later drew the interest of a Chinese publisher in New York. As a result, a manuscript containing about three times more material will come out in Chinese on April 15, in commemoration of Hu Yaobang's death, which 12 years ago triggered the student street demonstrations. Hu had been China's leading democratic reformer up until his fatal heart attack.

Link expects reverberations from that second publication. "I think inevitably there will be people challenging our translation. To translate languages that are as structurally different as Chinese and English is never a science. It's an art. You have to make choices, and we made choices all over the place," he said. "We did our best, but other people are going to disagree. In something as sensitive as this, they are going to say how could you translate this as that. Even before the Chinese version has come out, I've had a little bit of that."

Contact: Justin Harmon (609) 258-3601