While people in the US and elsewhere have been reacting to the release by WikiLeaks of classified US documents on the Afghan War, Chinese bloggers have been discussing the event in parallel with another in their own country. On July 21 in Beijing, four days before WikiLeaks published its documents, Chinese President Hu Jintao convened a high-level meeting to discuss ways to prevent leaks from the archives of the Communist Party of China.
Party archives in China exist at local, provincial, and central levels and have always been secret and extremely closely guarded. At local levels, some, in recent years, have been digitized, but at the highest levels the original paper is guarded physically, and rules of access are complex and extremely rigid.
The importance of the July 21 meeting, which was officially called an “All-China Work Meeting on Party History,” is plain from its list of attendees, which included not only President Hu but his heir-apparent Xi Jinping, chief of propaganda Li Changchun, and dozens of other high officials. In his widely-publicized keynote, Xi Jinping said:
We must resolutely oppose any mistaken tendency to distort or defame the Party’s history [and] must use only authorized Party history to educate Party members, officials, and the masses, especially the young.
Very little else about the meeting was shared with the Chinese public. But three days later, the main content of this anti-leak meeting was leaked, apparently by a reporter from the Communist Party’s official Xinhua news agency. The leaked account went to the overseas boxun (“broad information”) network, from where it spread around the world. The Chinese government has not (as it has in similar cases in the past) claimed the boxun report to be inaccurate or a “fabrication.”
The report says that two worries dominated the secret meeting: one was the matter of how archives can be kept secure. What would happen, the officials wondered, if they were raided during “social disturbances” such as the recent riots in Guangzhou protesting the central government’s effort to end Cantonese-language broadcasts in Cantonese-speaking areas. (The number of such “disturbances” has grown steadily in recent years, to more than 230,000 in 2009.) Should emergency incineration equipment be supplied at all archive sites, just in case? What if archive staff realize that they can sell things for profit? Should the staff be paid more, to buy their loyalty?
The second major worry was the growing problem of retired party officials writing unauthorized memoirs. Recent examples of this genre include Zhao Ziyang’s 2009 memoir and the “June Fourth Diary” of Li Peng, the Chinese premier at the time of the Tiananmen Square protests. (Li’s diary was refused publication in China, leaked to Hong Kong, published there, and then leaked back to the mainland on the Web. Bloggers on the whole have excoriated Li, who doesn’t appear to have been involved in the Web publication, because his motive from the beginning was probably not to try to win public opinion but to show for history that Deng, not he, ordered the Tiananmen Square killings.) General Yang Baibing, perhaps still smarting from his purge in 1992, reportedly has penned memoirs as well, as has Tian Jiyun, a former politburo member and long-time critic of his hard-liner colleagues. Altogether, an unnamed “54 high-level officials” have requested to see archives for the purpose of writing memoirs, and many of these people are believed to be preparing two versions—one to submit for official approval and the other to keep separately.
Against this background, the WikiLeaks story, which broke the day after the boxun leak, took on a special significance. In emails, tweets, and web postings, Chinese bloggers, both inside China and overseas, began listing key episodes in recent Chinese history that have remained shrouded in mystery and for which they would love to see archives opened:
- The famine during the Great Leap Forward in 1959-62. Somewhere between 20 and 50 million people died because of bad policy, not “bad weather.” What exactly happened? What policies caused the famine and what policies suppressed information on it? How much grain was in state granaries while people starved? Is it true that Mao sold grain to the Soviet Union during those years in order to buy nuclear weapons?
- The death of Mao’s military commander General Lin Biao in 1971. The official version of events, which to this day exists only in bare outline, strains credulity: Mao’s “closet comrade in arms” suddenly plotted a coup, failed in it, tried to flee to the Soviet Union, and was shot down in his plane. What really happened? Why? Why shouldn’t we know more?
- Mao’s will and personal lockbox. Mao’s wife Jiang Qing said at her trial (as part of the “Gang of Four”) that Mao had a written will that mentioned her. Did he? What did it say? Mao also apparently kept his own lockbox of “most core secrets” that, in his later years, not even Jiang Qing could see. Mao’s mistress Zhang Yufeng kept the key until September 21, 1976, twelve days after Mao’s death, when Hua Guofeng, Mao’s anointed successor, is said to have taken it from her. What’s in the box?
The Beijing Massacre of 1989. The basic story is fairly well known from The Tiananmen Papers, Zhao Ziyang’s memoirs, and Li Peng’s diary. But the records of some key meetings still are classified, and responsibility for the massacre remains an extremely sensitive question in Chinese politics.
The brutal suppression of the Falun Gong after 1999. Falun Gong claims there are concentration camps for their members and that internal organs of executed believers are surgically removed and sold. True? Untrue? What do the records say?
Beijing’s huge but secret “stability maintenance” budget. The Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences reports that Chinese government spending on domestic “stability maintenance”—the monitoring, intimidation, roughing-up, and illegal detention of petitioners, aggrieved workers, religious believers, professors, bloggers, twitterers, and other sources of “trouble”—now exceeds what the government spends in any category except the military. What are the details of this budget?
Bank accounts of Communist Party officials. Corruption and graft are widely viewed to be problems at every level of Chinese government, but exactly how much money have officials squirreled away? How much have they sent abroad?
Broadly speaking there are two kinds of reasons why Chinese officials have been so assiduous in guarding archives. One is that the prestige of the regime as a whole depends upon the image of the Party as heroic, patriotic, and the definition of modern China. The young must be taught to love the Party. Stories about internecine strife? About causing a huge famine? The people might not love us anymore, and might rebel.
The other kind of reason is much more personal. Each official has to watch out for his or her own self and family. A political “mistake” can ruin your career, even land you in prison, and archives are where your enemies can go to look for grounds to charge you with “mistakes”. Mao allowed his people to open archives to look for material on Liu Shaoqi and other enemies during the Cultural Revolution; a few years later archives were opened again as people looked for material on the Maoist “Gang of Four.”
The anonymous reporter who leaked the contents of the July 21 meeting commented on a looming atmosphere of demise at the meeting. The underlying mood, he suggested, was, We had better get control of these archives, and perhaps destroy them, before a day of reckoning is upon us.