History reclassified as state secret: the case of Xu Zerong

In 2002, historian Xu Zerong was sentenced to 13 years in jail for leaking state secrets. The classification of the leaked materials as “top secret” came only after he had been sentenced, writes Timothy Garton Ash.

The case

Xu Zerong (AKA David Tsui), an Oxford-educated historian based in Hong Kong, was detained and later arrested by the Chinese authorities in 2000. He was accused of leaking state secrets by sending copies of materials about the Korean War to a South Korean scholar and in January 2002, sentenced to 13 years in jail. The classification of those materials, from the 1950s, as “top secret” came only after the court in Shenzhen had jailed him. The court also accused him of selling unauthorised Hong Kong publications in mainland China.

According to Xu, the real reason for his arrest and imprisonment is related to a magazine article he had written in 2000 on a radio transmission station set up in Hunan Province, China, to broadcast propaganda for the Communist Party of Malaya in the 1970s and early 1980s. He thought that article had infuriated Beijing, although he believed that his work was “purely scholarly, without any link to any organisation or social movement”. During his time in prison he could only read limited materials due to restrictions, but had completed a book to point out the failings of Marxist theory. He was allowed to bring the manuscript out when he was released in June 2011.

Author opinion

Our 10th draft principle suggests that we must be free to challenge limits to freedom of expression justified on grounds such as national security. This obviously includes classifications of secrecy. It is impossible to see how the arrest and long imprisonment of Xu Zerong can be justified in terms of legitimate concerns about national security. The retrospective reclassification of the documents as “top secret” suggests very strongly that this is rather an example of the arbitrary, illegitimate use of state power.

- Timothy Garton Ash

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Comments (1)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. That is how high level secret remains untouchable.To the safety of the country,an ordinary life can alwyas be sacrified.As related on the movie “Nothing But the Truth”,where the journalist is arrested because she released secrets about the government,she can fight against the government but no one will be there to help her besides the government.Journalists are limited.The government runs them.They do not have the freedom as they wish.Secrets are secrets and they always be secrets.Any kind of expression will be opressed by national security,if national security suspects the information released can be a threat for them.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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