The "Tiananmen Papers"

February 5, 2001

by Edward Jay Epstein

Media events have a life of their own. Consider the launch of the so-called Tiananmen Papers. On January 7, Mike Wallace interviewed on CBS's 60 Minutes an anonymous person in disguise who claimed, at some undisclosed time and place, to have hand-copied a massive number of Chinese secret documents that included transcripts of meetings, telephone conversations and other communications that the top leaders of China had with one another at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. He said he smuggled out transcriptions of a portion of this data on computer disks. He has assumed a disguise so he would have the option of returning to Beijing. A portion of this material has been published in a book, The Tiananmen Papers: The Chinese Leadership's Decision to Use Force Against Their Own People (Public Affairs), edited by Andrew Nathan, professor of political science at Columbia University, and Perry Link, professor of Chinese language and literature at Princeton University, with an afterword by Orville Schell, an author and former consultant to 60 Minutes. The material also appeared in Foreign Affairs with an introduction by Nathan. Completing the circle, CBS Evening News quoted 60 Minutes' statement that the documents had been "authenticated" by experts.

Authentication is a defined procedure in which a questioned document, or a part of it, is compared with the original or to an authenticated copy of it. In this case, however, the experts cited by CBS had no opportunity for matching documents with the originals. They did not even possess the questioned hand-copied documents, only the putative transcriptions of parts of them downloaded from a computer disk. And they acknowledged that they did not have proof that the originals existed.

The editors were able to verify bits of information contained in questioned documents from other sources. Much of the chronology of meetings, for example, could be found in Nicholas Kristof's authoritative November 12, 1989, article, "How the Hard-Liners Won" in the New York Times Magazine. But such verification does not demonstrate that the documents are authentic. Bogus documents may contain accurate information (for example, facts in Clifford Irving's bogus Howard Hughes autobiography were verified by both Time-Life and McGraw-Hill, and information in the bogus "Hitler Diaries" was verified by the eminent Oxford historian Hugh Trevor-Roper). Indeed, invented documents frequently involve peppering the text with verifiable information. The credibility of documents therefore rests on their provenance-- the traceable chain of custody. By what means did these classified documents get from the files of the Chinese Politburo and Chinese security services into the hands of the media in America? How were they copied without detection, transcribed onto tape and transported to this country?

Hand-copying such massive files from secret archives, which would constitute espionage of the highest order, would involve care and time to evade security. According to the Wall Street Journal and Associated Press, some 15,000 pages were copied and, from them, a small fraction were selected for the book. This would be a tall order. If the copier managed to transcribe one page an hour, and worked (in addition to his regular job) six hours a day, five days a week, it would take him ten years to copy 15,000 pages (not counting the time to enter them into a computer). Whoever copied such documents would have to have had access to classified material in different secure areas. So, to establish a provenance, it would be necessary to determine the copier's position, rank, level of access to classified documents and tenure in office. Those connected with the book did not provide this provenance. Orville Schell told me that he "is not at liberty to say from whom, or how, the documents were obtained." James Hoge Jr., the editor of Foreign Affairs, wrote regarding the problem of the time needed to transcribe these files, "The work was done by a number of persons at the behest of high level reformers." He explained further that the anonymous person who appeared on 60 Minutes and whom the experts debriefed was merely their designated deliverer. If so, a deliveryman might himself not know who provided the documents to the group of transcribers. So, what remains missing is the chain of custody between the putative copier(s) and the deliverer.

Tiananmen Papers co-editor Nathan says the computer disk he printed out contained 516 pages of Chinese text. He suggested that reports in the Wall Street Journal and Associated Press that it was drawn from 15,000 pages of purloined documents were in error. He reasoned that the stories didn't come from me or Perry [Link], the only authoritative sources on this question-- and were therefore inaccurate. For his part, he says he cannot reveal the size of the underlying archive the transcribers had access to because it would endanger their safety.

Maybe so. But by asserting that he and his co-editor are the only "authoritative sources," he is excluding all the others-- including the deliverer (who gave his own press interviews), the group of transcribers who boiled down the documents to 516 pages and the members of the faction that purportedly directed them and who copied the documents. Certainly, if such a treasure trove of documents exists, there would be a great number of people in a position to know its approximate size. Moreover, Nathan himself does not claim to have firsthand knowledge of those involved, other than the deliveryman. At best, from his work editing them, he has, as he puts it, "my views about the identities of the persons involved." He may be intuitively right-- or wrong-- but views do not make a provenance.

Finally, there is the question of motive. Schell said in the Wall Street Journal that he was convinced that the work was legitimate, both because of the deliverer's apparent knowledge of the inner workings of the Chinese government and the clarity of his motive in releasing documents. His motive, Schell explains, was to help reformers gain power in the Communist Party in Beijing. But the same clarity of motive, a desire for power, might also lead a group to arrange to publish bogus documents. The authors have, of course, every right to publish a book they intuitively believe is truthful. But we do not know who, if anyone, took and copied these documents-- or how many documents there are in the archive. We do not know why they were transcribed or who transcribed them. We do not know who directed this process-- or why-- and who selected, or wrote, the 516 pages delivered for publication. All we know for sure is that some anonymous person from China delivered for publication in America a computer file that cannot be authenticated.


To The Nation:

Mr. Epstein retails a story about 15,000 pages being hand-copied even though I told him it is false, and justifies doing so by mentioning two newspaper articles whose sources he hasn't checked. His other statements about how the material reached me, and how my colleagues and I verified it, are imaginary. (Andrew J. Nathan, Co-Editor Of THE TIANANMEN PAPERS)

My Reply:

In fact, I did include in my article not only Mr. Nathan's assertion that reports in the Wall Street Journal and Associated Press but also his claim that he and his co-editor were the only "authoritative sources on this question." For my part, I do not know how many authentic documents, if any at all, were ever copied in China or anywhere else. The problem that concerns me is not the number of pages, but if the provenance of what purports to be transcripts of secret verbatim conversation of the leadership of China in 1989, and which the publisher compares with the Pentagon Papers, is real or imaginary.

In the case of the Pentagon Papers, the New York Times, which published them, clearly established that 1) the existence of authentic documents— The Secretary of Defense had commissioned them in the late nineteen-sixties; 2) the existence of a bona fide copy at the Rand Corporation 3) and that the copier of them, Daniel Ellsberg, had the necessary access and opportunity at the Rand Corporation.

In the case of the Tiananmen Papers, the publisher has not established 2) that any of the putative documents ever existed, or even that the Chinese leadership ever made verbatim transcripts of their secret conversations in 1989 2) that any such documents were ever copied or 3) or who transcribed the supposed documents. It has even kept secret the identity of the man who delivered to America electronic data, which is no more verifiable than an anonymious email. Under such circumstances, how can one verify that copies of documents that one does not possess match original documents that one does not know ever existed?

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