Shining a Cleansing Light on China’s Dark Secrets
By JANE PERLEZ
BEIJING — Shen Zhihua, bon vivant, former businessman, now China’s foremost Cold War historian, has set himself a near-impossible task. He wants China to peel back its secrets, throw open its archives and tell its citizens what went on between China and the United States, between China and North Korea, and much more.
Even before the hard-line era of President Xi Jinping, the Communist Party has acted like a supersensitive corporation, blocking highly regarded historians like Mr. Shen from peering too deeply. Precious documents have been destroyed, stolen or kept under seal by librarians skilled at deflecting the inquiries of even the most tenacious researchers.
“Chinese leaders have historical baggage,” Mr. Shen, who will turn 68 next month, said over a glass of white wine at a handsome villa hidden behind a high wall in the heart of Beijing. His tousled graying hair, casual jacket and open-necked shirt depart sharply from the buttoned-down party look.
“The party was popular, but after 1949 the party made a lot of mistakes: land reform, the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward. People might ask: ‘Since you have made so many mistakes, why are you still in power?’ ”
The party is unnecessarily nervous, he argues. “If you look at Chinese history, none can replace the Communist Party. Most of the elite is in the party. The party shouldn’t worry about being challenged. If I was running the propaganda department, I would say: ‘Those mistakes were made in the past, not now, and we need to learn from our mistakes.’ ”
The party frets so much that Mr. Shen — who possesses a blue-ribbon political pedigree — cannot get access even to documents deemed accessible under a law passed in 1996 that said archives would be open to the public after 30 years. The law has never been followed.
Hence, China’s version of Nixon’s visit in 1972 and its accounts of the precursor trips by Henry Kissinger remain largely unknown. What went on between Mao and the North Korean leader Kim Il-sung during the Korean War is only sketchily understood from China’s point of view.
With Xia Yafeng of Long Island University, Mr. Shen is the author of the seminal work on China’s relations with North Korea, “A Misunderstood Friendship: Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung and Sino-North Korean relations 1949-1976,” which will be published in English later this year. The book relies heavily on the archives in Moscow and Central Europe that tumbled open after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Read more…
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