Navigating China’s archives

Navigating China’s archives

Restricted access to the Chinese Foreign Ministry archive is a great loss for China scholars

This June I published my first book, China–Japan Relations after World War Two: Empire, Industry and War, 1949–1971 (Cambridge University Press).

The book examines a key puzzle in the China–Japan relationship: why, in the immediate aftermath of their bitterest war and the onset of the Cold War divide, were China’s leaders willing to rely on Japanese technical assistance in building the new Communist state?

The book answers this question by drawing on hundreds of recently declassified Chinese archival documents, the most important of which were records from the Chinese Foreign Ministry archive in Beijing.

I made my first visit to the Foreign Ministry archive in 2008, while studying as a Masters student at Oxford University. This was my first encounter with a Chinese archive and I found the visit both exciting but also nerve-wracking. Would I be allowed to view the materials? Would my Chinese be good enough to read records from the 1950s and 1960s? And would I find anything of use for my research?

On that first visit I was extremely fortunate to be accompanied by a generous Chinese student, who was familiar with the archive and its staff. She helped me to navigate the arcane procedures that typically accompany archival research in any country (Where should I put my bag? Am I allowed to carry a pencil? Is photocopying allowed?), as well as those that are more specific to doing archival research in China (What kind of letter of introduction do I need? How much should I tell the archive staff about my research project?).

Following that first visit in 2008, I returned to the Foreign Ministry archive many times over the next four years as I pursued the doctoral research that would ultimately lead to my book. During those four years, the archive would move from its initial location—in a dated, but perfectly comfortable, low-rise building that sat in the shadows of the imposing Foreign Ministry headquarters—to a much newer, larger, and more impressive high-rise.

Overwhelming demand

The demand by both Chinese and foreign researchers to gain access to the Foreign Ministry’s rare archival holdings had overwhelmed the space available in the old building. In Oxford, stories filtered back to me from Beijing of researchers who were camping outside the Foreign Ministry at 7 am, then 6 am, then as early as 5 am, so that they could guarantee a seat at one of the few desks available when the archive opened its doors each morning. In response, the Foreign Ministry allocated a new building that was able to accommodate dozens of researchers at a time.

Each time I arrived back in Beijing, I waited nervously to see if the archive’s security guards and staff would allow me in. Thankfully, I was never turned away. However, use of the archives became increasingly challenging over the years, particularly as the Foreign Ministry first restricted, and later completely banned, all copying of its archival holdings. Like many Chinese archives, the Foreign Ministry’s collections are completely digitised and so researchers search for, and view, the collections using a computer terminal.

When I first visited the archive in 2008, I had been permitted to print copies of documents for the student discount rate of 5 RMB per page. When I returned in 2010, the archive had put in place a long list of restrictions about the kinds of materials that could be printed, including records of talks, documents signed by key leaders such as Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, and reports sent to the Foreign Ministry from China’s embassies abroad.

In practice, this ruled out about 80 per cent of the archive’s holdings. Those restrictions tightened further in 2011 and 2012. As a result, I became very proficient in transcribing by hand the most important documents I viewed. While this process was incredibly time-consuming, transcribing forced me to think hard about my research project and the kinds of documents that would be most useful to me. In the United Kingdom and United States, I had taken digital photographs of thousands of pages of documents, many of which proved to be utterly irrelevant. By comparison, my Chinese collection was a much more well-pruned, and ultimately useful, collection.

This abrupt reduction in access may have been part of a wider tightening of access to archives across China following the change in leadership from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping in late 2012

I made my final visit to the archive in 2012, and submitted my doctoral thesis later that year. It was only after finishing this research that I realised just how fortunate I had been to gain access to the Foreign Ministry’s holdings. In 2013, the Foreign Ministry blocked off access to around ninety per cent of its archival collection.

Archive closed

Then in May 2014, the ever helpful ‘Fresh from the Archives’ website, published by Dissertation Reviews, noted that the archive had been completely closed to the public. This abrupt reduction in access may have been part of a wider tightening of access to archives across China following the change in leadership from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping in late 2012.

However, news reports also appeared in February 2013 suggesting an alternative explanation. Specifically, these reports suggested that the restrictions were put in place after a Japanese journalist obtained a 1950s era document from the archive that described the contested Diaoyu/Senkaku islands as belonging to Japan, thereby compromising the Chinese government’s territorial claim.

Regardless of the explanation, the restriction in access to the Chinese Foreign Ministry archive is a great loss for scholars in International Relations, Cold War History and Modern Chinese Studies. Having access to the Chinese Foreign Ministry archives opened up a wealth of materials that were critically important in explaining China’s foreign policy motivations, the Chinese Communist Party’s views of their wider international environment, and how the Party navigated profound political, economic and security challenges in its early years in power.

Having access to these records allowed me to draw conclusions about Chinese foreign policy thinking and relations with Japan that were previously overlooked by scholars who had had to rely predominantly on Japanese, British, American and Soviet sources.

There has been a great boom in the study of China in recent years, not only because of the importance of understanding this country, but also because of the relative openness of Chinese archives in the 2000s. Understanding China will only become more important in future; we must hope that the archives catch up.

Dr Amy King is a lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, and a Research Associate with the Graduate Research and Development Network on Asian Security (GRADNAS).

Featured image:
The Chinese Foreign Ministry building in Beijing. The abrupt reduction in access to its archives in 2013 may have been part of a wider tightening of access to archives across China. Photo: Chinese Foreign Ministry

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