a PAW web exclusive column
China and the modern world
Professor Perry Link talks about global terrorism and his book The
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.