How to Profit from a Nation's Tragedy
by Phillip J. Cunningham

"The Tiananmen Papers" surfaced with a big splash in January -- even the new U.S. president has said he will read them. The overall quality of the reports contained in this thick volume has been judged by a number of China scholars and intelligence experts to fall within the realm of believability, though University of Michigan China scholar Ken Lieberthal was quick to point out that such leaks tend to be edited in a way that is favorable to the political cause of the leaker. The plausibility of the Papers is high because there is little that is new, and what is familiar can be corroborated from other sources.

The Papers show that Li Peng was in favor of the crackdown and Zhao Ziyang opposed it, something that everyone on the square knew in 1989. The book also shows that Deng Xiaoping isn't as bad as we thought he was; he had doubts about calling in the troops and wanted to avoid bloodshed. We also learn that Deng, widely viewed in the West as a ruthless tyrant, was still interested in promoting reform and slightly annoyed that Zhao was credited as the engine of reform by those outside the party.

This is moderately interesting stuff, but it doesn't bear close analysis because of a couple of fudge factors, one being the packaging, the other the sourcing.

The hubris of the publishing effort is obvious in the title: "The Tiananmen Papers" brings to mind the great media scoop that caused America to completely reassess the war in Vietnam. But the Pentagon Papers contained verbatim reports released in their language of origin, not paraphrased reports in translation released a decade later. The title is more than a misnomer, it is misleading; no papers, at least no original papers, are accurately reproduced here. Not a one.

Instead, the reader is given paraphrased renditions of reports, reconstructed conversations and secondhand, even third and fourth-hand narratives. By the time we read this stuff in translation, it is frustratingly inexact and lacking in detail, like the usual outcome in the children's game of telephone, where the message gets distorted at several junctures until it is laughably different from the original. In this way, the book fails the standards of both journalism and scholarship.

That's not to say the Papers don't contain truth, they just don't contain verifiable truth except when they tell us what we already know. If "The Tiananmen Papers" turn out to be something close to the real thing, then the assumption of copyright of leaked documents by a New York publisher raises interesting ethical questions, especially in light of U.S. complaints that China does not respect intellectual property.

China scholars have already complained about the lack of access to the Chinese "originals," refusing to pass judgment on the authenticity of the documents until they see the work in its original form. Meanwhile, the English version is being trumpeted worldwide. What better way to maximize copyright control, and sell translation rights, than to keep it all in English? The English version of the Papers is not just the only version available at this time, it has been accepted as the "bible" for subsequent translations into other languages such as German, French and Japanese.

Designated Chinese-language publisher Ho Pin, who was selected after bigger Taiwan publishing houses balked at the high asking price, had to cut a deal that was financially and politically agreeable to the New York publishing team to get access to the Papers. Even so, Ho Pin has stated that he has not met "Zhang Liang" for authentication purposes and has no desire to do so -- it's just a business deal. So much for the credibility of the Chinese version, which is already under the influence of the English version. If the primary object of the Papers was to "get the truth out," they should have been put on the Internet in the original Chinese.

"The Tiananmen Papers" hit the market with heavy topspin, launched by an uptown Manhattan publicity machine in high gear. Excerpts of the "new, controversial" book were handed out in bite-size pieces to favored elite media outlets (Time, CBS, Foreign Affairs, etc.) and embargoed everywhere else. To maximize the buzz, favored U.S. reviewers and journalists got advance copies. Everyone else -- including millions of Chinese in Hong Kong, Taiwan, overseas and several million online in China -- had to wait.

A slick, secrecy-wrapped PR operation of the kind used to promote "The Tiananmen Papers" is par for the course when it comes to the release of a Hollywood action flick or a new Mac computer, but it is inappropriate and crude when marketing alleged historical documents that detail political murder and national tragedy. The hype accorded the Papers was remarkably heavy and well-coordinated, especially in the Time-CNN-Asiaweek-AOL media zaibatsu that was given preferential access to excerpts. Editors Nathan, Link and Schell were trotted out on TV and given pages of print, not just to publicize their new book, but to authenticate it, a closed feedback loop that does little to assuage the doubts of the serious critic.

For example, the Jan. 15, 2001 Asia edition of Time gave the Papers a cover story and an eight-page spread (Asiaweek ran a similar spread) in which there are no dissenting voices and in which Schell gets a full page to review a book that has his name on the cover and from which he stands to make a profit. This is a deviation from Time's usual standards. Even the film section of the same issue offered a more objective treatment of Hollywood product, balancing a glowing spread on Steven Soderbergh's newest film with a sharply dissenting review by film critic Richard Schickel.

"The Tiananmen Papers" bear the ideological fingerprints of former Random House CEO Robert Bernstein, who is credited with supporting the endeavor by drumming up money for the translation team. Bernstein, who has come as close as anyone has to cornering the market in selling China's sorrow, has previously put together China-book deals for dissidents Harry Wu, Li Lu and Wei Jingsheng, among others.

Ironically, Wei Jingsheng, who was given an office "for life" through Bernstein's connections at Columbia University, was served notice just before the launch of the Papers that his Columbia gig is up. Human Rights in China founder and funder Bernstein complained he couldn't control Wei, and Columbia Professor Nathan further explained that Wei hadn't earned his keep. Judging from the buzz on CBS "60 Minutes," Zhang Liang is the new darling of the uptown China crowd, and poor old Wei is out on his own again.

As for sourcing, how can we understand the extraordinary access to detailed fly-on-the-wall conversations that took place in secure quarters a decade ago? By the editors' own admission, no audiotapes, original documents or even Xeroxed documents were offered as corroborating evidence, yet the Papers are being hyped with ruthless confidence. Several possibilities come to mind, but I will stick to the simplest explanation.

The publishers and the "Tiffany" press of Manhattan would not have bitten so hard if the compiler of the secondhand papers were a nobody with no credibility. They're too smart for that. It is my observation, after reading the book and the cautionary notes appended to the text by the editing team, that the messenger is more important than the message in this case, and that "The Tiananmen Papers," even if adulterated, hail from a name-brand source. An unexpected source, if I may speculate for a moment, like Deng Xiaoping's daughter Deng Rong.

Deng Rong has previously written a book, published in English as "Deng Xiaoping: My Father," which first put her in touch with the New York publishing world. The anonymous compiler's tortured logic about why paraphrased documents must suffice instead of real ones in the preface to the Papers reminds me of Deng Rong's unauthorized biography of her father, in which she skirted strict party regulations by telling her father's story in broad strokes, without relying on official sources or even interviewing him.

Whatever the ultimate source of the Papers, it seems to be China's unique sorrow that when it wounds itself, as it does time and time again, it hides behind a veil of silence and shame, leaving it to those far from China, who don't always have its best interests in mind, to tell the story.

Philip J. Cunningham covered the
1989 Tiananmen demonstrations for BBC news.