Today, “Li materials” are the subject of a legal battle between Stanford University and Mr. Li’s widow in Beijing. This is a battle for custody of an unofficial history of China.
In millions of handwritten Chinese characters, Mr. Li documents his early days in the party, the revolution that brought him to power and his experiences as Mao Zedong’s secretary in the 1950s, as well as the 20 years that he was he was imprisoned for slandering Mao’s economic policies.
Mr. Li continued to write after being politically rehabilitated, and continued to write long after his retirement. A loyal Communist cadre until his death at the age of 101, he was known among academics and journalists as the rare initiate to publicly criticize the party for its crackdown on Tiananmen Square, the construction of the Three Gorges Dam and , continuously, the leadership of China itself.
Mr. Li noted the officials he met and what they discussed as he worked his way up the party ranks, as well as the time he got out of bed and the weather at. outside his balcony on the sixth floor of Beijing.
“Overcast to clear sky. I woke up a little after 6.30am “, he starts an entry for a Sunday in October 2017 which presses references to a former Chinese leader, the Cultural Revolution, a wildfire and the prices of raw materials between the mentions of his television, his family photos and contact with a family of high political rank.
“Usually he just wrote down the facts of everyday life, very rarely what he thought,” his daughter, Li Nanyang, told the Wall Street Journal. There was still some drama, as in his description of the June 4, 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen: “Soldiers firing at random with their machine guns, sometimes firing on the ground and sometimes in the direction of the sky,” he wrote.
In 2010, he wrote of Mao, “Mao has gone completely in the opposite direction from where the human race should be heading. efforts to remove presidential term limits, referencing a foreign report titled “Democracy is Dead”.
Mr. Li was an honest and diligent scribe who, by championing the idea that the party could reform, maintained relations across the Chinese political spectrum, said Chinese scholar Feng Chongyi, now at the University of Technology. from Sydney, who has seen Mr. Li almost every year for the past several decades.
“Keeping this recording authentic during this period of time is just precious,” said Mr. Feng, who singled out Mr. Li from some Chinese officials who produced “diaries for propaganda.”
But publicly presenting such an individualized version of the party’s main events comes up against President Xi’s demands for a “correct view of history.” .
In the rare cases where accounts of Chinese politicians have been leaked, they have caused a stir, such as recordings out of China of Zhao Ziyang, the impeached Chinese premier of the Tiananmen era who spent the rest of his life under house arrest.
American journalist Adi Ignatius, who co-produced a 2009 Zhao memoir that shed new light on the crackdown and was based on the recordings, said that when the tapes smuggled out of Beijing, his associates were using an early version of the film. e-mail encrypted to avoid detection. by state security. “It is forbidden to publish anything behind the scenes,” said Mr. Ignatius, now editor of the Harvard Business Review.
Mr. Li’s background makes his papers unique for anyone who delves into his bulky production. “Given the positions he held and the people he knew, I would expect them to be of great research importance and help understand the inner workings of China’s elite politics. said Anthony Saich, a Chinese expert at Harvard Kennedy School, who also knew Mr. Li.
The publication of Mr. Li’s words has long been banned in China, Stanford argues in a court case, so if his papers had remained there they would be “suppressed and possibly destroyed.”
But, were the papers stolen in China?
That’s the question facing the U.S. District Court for Northern California, where lawyers from opposite sides of the family schism scramble to claim and reconvent ownership of the records.
Seeking to prove ownership, Stanford was joined in the Oakland case by daughter Ms Li, 71, against Mr Li’s second wife and widow in Beijing, Zhang Yuzhen, 91.
During a brief phone call, Ms. Zhang refused to answer questions but said the newspapers were a problem for the party organization department, where Mr. Li had previously held a position. China’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to a list of questions, including whether the government supported Ms. Zhang’s case.
Her US attorney, Matthew J. Jacobs of Vinson & Elkins LLP in San Francisco, said, “Our one and only client is Ms. Zhang, period.”
Ms. Zhang accuses her daughter-in-law of exercising “undue influence” over Mr. Li, according to court records which allege that Ms. Li “stole” personal information and “national treasures.”
A Beijing court in 2019 cited China’s inheritance law to rule that Ms. Zhang was entitled to the material.
Stanford attorney Mark D. Litvack, of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP in Los Angeles, said Mr. Li makes it clear in the newspapers themselves that he supported the placement of the material with the Hoover Institution of Stanford on War, Revolution and Peace.
Mr Litvack also said the Beijing court blocked Stanford from presenting evidence in this case, particularly his view that inheritance law was irrelevant since the records were not in Mr Li’s possession. at the time of his death. “It is an undeniable fact that we all had them during his lifetime,” said Litvack.
“All the events happened in China, whether it was a theft, an inheritance or a gift, so in all cases Chinese law applies and a Chinese court has already ruled “said Mr. Jacobs.
For now, the 40 manuscript boxes and associated digital files form Collection No. 2019C100 in Hoover’s Vast Archive of Chinese History. They are open by appointment with over 6,000 Hoover collections from more than 150 countries, including political posters from World War I, X-rays of Adolf Hitler’s head, and decades of Afghan newspapers.
Ari Redbord, a former US government lawyer with experience in international financial crime who is not involved in the case, said a US court would likely focus on legitimate property. “It seems to me to be a very classic property law type case,” Mr. Redbord said.
Richard McGregor, the Australian author of “The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers,” who visited Mr. Li at his home in 2003, said in the 2010 book, “He was possibly the only senior initiate living in China willing to speak publicly and in explicit detail on the taboo subject of Mao’s legacy. “
Although he often disagrees with the party line, Mr. Li was entitled to an official funeral with burial in the legendary Babaoshan Cemetery in Beijing. Top leaders paid tribute, including President Xi, who sent a wreath. Outside the funeral, a small group unfurled banners calling for democracy.
What to do with Mr. Li’s precious diaries was a constant topic of family discussion, according to his daughter, who wrote about her often strained relationship with him. For years, she said, her father accepted his wife’s argument that they “belong to the party,” but liked the idea of placing them with Hoover nonetheless.
Mr. Li had written of his visit to his archives in February 1989 and of being impressed that his collection on China included the diaries of Chiang Kai-shek, who led Mao’s Communist Revolution Losers’ Camp ( Stanford is also involved in a long-standing dispute over this material.)
In 2017, Mr. Li’s daughter had already delivered some of his letters to Hoover, which gave him a prestigious post as a visiting scholar. For Ms. Li, the appointment was a “boon” for taking the documents, Ms. Zhang claims in court records; Stanford says the post was linked to Ms. Li’s help to archivists deciphering her father’s sometimes difficult-to-read scribble.
In Li’s home, resistance to sending newspapers overseas subsided as President Xi dismissed some of the old guard officials who had long pampered the Li family, her daughter said.
On January 30, 2017, Mr. Li wrote that he had talked about the newspapers with his wife and daughter and said that “she” – although it is not clear who this refers to – “is from okay with my way of doing things, which is giving the journals to the Hoover Institution for archiving. “
A few days later, Ms. Li said, “My father said, come on, come on, go on.
She stuffed decades of her diaries into two carry-on bags and nervously headed for a United Airlines flight to San Francisco, sweating for fear that customs officials would confiscate her father’s files. “To this day, I don’t know why they haven’t checked out,” she said.