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the tiananmen papers

In January of 2001, after years of review and preparation, co-editors Andrew Nathan and Perry Link, both prominent China scholars from the U.S., published The Tiananmen Papers [Public Affairs Books]. It is a collection of hundreds of internal government documents that reveal how China's top leadership was deeply split over how to deal with the unrest that spread across the nation in May-June of 1989 and how their internal political struggle finally culminated in the decision to crush the Tiananmen Square demonstrations on the night of June 3-4.

These meeting minutes, speeches, eyewitness accounts and transcripts of secret meetings of the Party leaders were smuggled out of China by "Zhang Liang," the pseudonym adopted by a man assumed to be a disaffected Chinese public official. "If a society hasn't got people who seek for the truth, it's not going to advance," said Zhang, his face and voice disguised, in a 2001 interview with CNN. "What I did, I did for history and for the people."

Upon publication, the controversy began. The Chinese government initially remained silent and tried to block news about it, including censoring Web sites that published excerpts. But when discussion only grew, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao went on the state-run Xinhua News Agency and denounced The Tiananmen Papers as just the latest attempt to "disrupt China" by "fabricating materials and distorting facts."

Prominent China experts, as well as Chinese citizens who had been imprisoned for their participation in the 1989 protests, also expressed doubts about the book's authenticity. They cited factual errors and over-dramatic speeches they said seemed to stick too closely to stereotypes of the major Chinese Communist Party players. Many concluded it was a blend of some real documents supplemented by inauthentic creations.

Nathan, Link and "Zhang Liang" defended their work. It was possible, they reasoned, for authentic documents to contain factual errors. They noted that the meeting minutes were not word-for-word transcripts but stylized reconstructions based on aides' notes and suggested that the sheer volume of material would have made fabrication an unlikely feat. In addition, at least three former Chinese Communist Party officials involved in the events of 1989 came forward to publicly endorse the collection's authenticity.

The debate over the veracity of The Tiananmen Papers eventually tapered off, although in 2004, a new article questioning the collection -- this time based on its similarity to a genre of historical or political docudrama popular in China -- appeared in The China Quarterly, a leading China studies scholarly journal.

Five years after their publication, most authorities have come to feel that the documents are generally solid, even if no one can guarantee their absolute truth. As "Zhang Liang" told CNN in 2001, "The best answer to the question of authenticity is that time will tell."

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posted apr. 11, 2006

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