Dealing with Re-classified Documents in China

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A document, still declassified, from the Shanghai Municipal Archives.

I came to Beijing earlier this week, intending to spend my days in the 北京市档案馆 Beijing Municipal Archives. But a network malfunction at the archives—along with the commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II—managed to derail these plans. After only one day at the municipal archives, I had to come up with an alternate agenda.

I decided this was an opportunity to revisit many of the materials I’ve collected over the past two years from the Shanghai Municipal Archives, as well as other sources, and start developing “databases” for each chapter of my dissertation.

My master file—now a sprawling Excel worksheet—shows that I have information about nearly 500 individual documents from the Shanghai Municipal Archives related to my project. That’s a lot of stuff to get through, and one week in Beijing isn’t long enough to do so.

Due to various restrictions in copying and printing and limits on my own individual time and patience, the data comes in all shapes and sizes. Some records I was given permission to print and I have a nice PDF file of the original document; other records I transcribed in full because the content seemed so important. For many other records, I have only partial transcriptions; for some, I only have full citations but no substance.

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My master file for research in Shanghai, documenting the anomalies of the Shanghai Municipal Archives.

I use the Excel master file to keep tabs on documents. I note if a document is available in multiple locations or if it has even been published in a book. I also keep track of which documents I was allowed to print; if my request to print was denied, I mark that down (looking for patterns, to no avail).

At some point in my research I had to start taking note of something I hadn’t anticipated: whether a document was still available to view at the Shanghai Municipal Archives.

I remember the first time I encountered this problem. I returned to Shanghai in June 2014 for my second research trip and wanted to look at B127-1-359, a folder on the early stages of the campaign to relocate “educated youth” to Xinjiang in the 1960s. While I had transcribed most of the folder’s contents, I thought the evidence was so important that I should just double check if I missed anything. I plugged the number in to the computer, and nothing came up.

My days spent in coffee shops in Beijing this week with the Excel master file constantly open, I noticed how often the phrase “Removed from Archive” appears. The experience of re-classified documents is frustrating for an individual researcher, and it raises some difficult to resolve dilemmas for historians.

A document, once declassified in the Shanghai Municipal Archives but now re-classified, was printed in an official government publication in 2003. Check it out at your local library.
A document, once declassified in the Shanghai Municipal Archives but now re-classified, was printed in an official government publication in 2003. Check it out at your local library.

Citations are supposed to function like a map. Other researchers should be able to follow the trail and be led back to the document you consulted. But if I cite B127-1-359 in my dissertation, researchers won’t find anything. They’d meet a dead-end (“error: document not found”).

(An aside: if your footnotes won’t lead someone else to the same source you consulted at say, the US National Archives, you’re doing it wrong. Brevity is important when word counts are controlled by publishers, but concision should not cause confusion.)

Reproducability is critical to the historical method and the scholarly enterprise. Other researchers should be able to verify your data and interpretations by accessing the same sources.

Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, there is an epidemic of Chinese archives removing previously accessible materials.

In certain cases, a scholar could overcome this dilemma by simply making a copy of the record available if asked to do so. (For a few records, I even found that they had been published in a book in the Mainland and were therefore still easily accessible—all the more perplexing why the document was removed from the archive…)

But in other cases, it won’t be possible to share. What if a researcher just has a few notes about the document, not a transcription or full copy? Worse: what if an especially malicious writer decides to take advantage of this situation and forge their footnotes?

I have too many good documents that are no longer available not to use them, and fortunately in most cases I do have a more-or-less complete transcription that I can share with interested readers. Nevertheless, I suspect the problem of ‘re-classification’ and citation will crop in PRC studies more and more in the near future.

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