The Tiananmen Papers, which purport to be verbatim transcripts of the inner sanctum meetings of the leadership of China in June 1989, was published last week in Chinese in Hong Kong. The American publisher likened this material to the celebrated Pentagon Papers. But the Chinese Foreign Minister, Tang Jiaxuan, denounced the book as a "sheer fabrication."

What is the difference between the provenance of the Tiananmen Papers and the Pentagon Papers?


The provenance of a questioned document proceeds from the credibility of its chain of prior custody. In the case of the Pentagon Papers, which purported to be a secret history of the Vietnam War prepared in the late 1960s by the Pentagon, the New York Times established three basic links in the chain.

1) Authentic documents existed. Robert Strange McNamara, then Secretary of Defense, and other former officials, conformed that such documents had been written by a team of Pentagon analysts.

2) A bona fide copy of this history had been stored at the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica

3) The Rand Corporation employee who delivered this material to the Times, Daniel Ellsberg, had the necessary access, clearance and opportunity at the Rand Corporation to copy the history, and admitted doing so.

So there was a clear provenance. In addition, copies of these documents could be matched to other documents that were declassified.

The situation was very different in the case of the Tiananmen Papers. Here the publisher was unable to establish that:

1) There was ever verbatim transcripts made of any secret meetings of the Chinese leadershipin June 1989. No one indeed knows for sure if and what kind of t records oare kept.

2) Anyone identifiable copied such an archive of documents.

3) That the person who delivered a putative edited summary of this material ever had access, clearance or opportunity to the copied documents.

Not only is there no chain of custody in the Tiananmen papers, but there are no documents. The deliverer, who remains anonymous, furnished two American scholars, Perry Link and Andrew Nathan, with data on computer discs that summarized and transcribed putative documents. The deliverer claimed that his material had been excerpted and transcribed in China by an unknown number of persons at the behest of high level reformers. These transcriptions were the equivalent of an anonymous email from a source with an agenda. So the provenance rests on the word of a nameless person who himself does not claim to have seen the documents themselves.

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