This House believes a nation's history and mythology is part of its national security

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.

Timothy Garton Ash's 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

Debaters’ Note

This motion expands from the egregious specifics of this particular case. There is a very fine line over the point at which issues which may have once been sensitive on the grounds of national security cease to be. How far can a nation go in terms of protecting information that they may wish to use again at some point in the future or preserving historical myth about great leaders of the past. Most nations have the capacity to prevent certain records from ever reaching the light of day but this is for the most part rarely used. There is a general rule of thumb that, once all of the participants are dead, then everything is free game but is that a sensible rule or does it just act to protect former tyrants – or incompetents – from legitimate public scrutiny during their lifetime? Proposition would need to give a clear definition of these and other issues. Where is the debate set and how long can information be protected? Critically they need to decide who should decide when information can be released - political leaders tend to be reluctant to encourage prying into the actions of their predecessors, in case people get a taste for it. For many states some historical incidents are so closely tied to the continuing interest of the state it is inconceivable that they would ever want them investigated too closely; this particularly means the revolution that created the state or, conversely, the defeated coup that allowed its continued existence. Wars a nation has won and underpin a national mythology can be uncomfortable to examine too closely for generations after the final shot is fired.

Read this case and more similar cases on Free Speech Debate

Protecting the past

There is a simple case of natural justice in protecting the decisions and reputations of those who have served the state and can no longer speak for themselves[i]. The same applies to events, for better or worse political or military disputes that were settled fifty or a hundred years ago are best left like that, settled.

All nations have moments in their histories that are unlikely to reflect that country at its best but we judge our own nations and others on a balance of the broad sweep of history rather than the grubby minutiae of particular events.

By its nature the historical record will always be incomplete – silent on motivations of those involved or the particularities of individual decisions as we can never know everything and not all decision making processes are recorded. We already know the overall outcomes of, for example, wars or elections. It would be impossible to change those results by discovering that they were not handled as one might have wished. Neither is their much to be gained in despoiling the characters of those involved – national psyches need their heroes and villains, making either of them more human in both senses of the phrase adds little and could distract much. For example do we really need to know that Churchill opposed the Nuremburg trials instead favouring execution without trial for senior Nazi leaders? Does it diminish Churchill’s greatness or undermine the results of the Nuremburg trials? No.[ii]

[i] BBC News Website. Secret papers face faster release. 29 January 2009.

[ii] Cobain, Ian, ‘Britain favoured execution over Nuremberg trials for Nazi leaders’, The Guardian, 26 October 2012


There is rarely anything to do with protecting the past in these decisions. It is all to do with the present and either manufacturing an image of a previous decision or covering up corruption or incompetence on the part of the party, faction or individual that happens to be in charge at the time. What Proposition so cheerily describes as ‘grubby minutiae’ would be more generally referred to as ‘facts’, proposition seems to think that history shouldn’t let these ‘grubby minutiae’ get in the way of a good story. If proposition is correct in its view that “It would be impossible to change those results” then there is no reason why historians should not be free to investigate and reinterpret the record as to how these results were arrived at.

Foundational Myths

Nations come from somewhere, or at least we tend to believe they do[i]. The fact that these foundational myths are usually either partially or completely untrue is mostly irrelevant. These myths – be they of glorious revolutions or long histories reaching back into antiquity are projections of the modern nation. However, they are only the most obvious example of national mythologies, we project our current-day identities onto all sorts of more recent histories as well. To take one fairly flippant example of this, ask a national of any country involved on the victorious side in WWII and ask them who won the war.

States have an interest in perpetuating these myths, not for particular or personal motives but because they add to a sense of national identity and the homogeneity of the whole. To that extent they are, quite literally, a matter of national security they confer and justify the notion of the nation as an entity or the concept of the nation state as a possibility. As national historian Spyridon Lambros said “next to military power, the pen of the historian is the most powerful weapon of national ambitions.”[ii]

[i] Tambini, D. Ethnic and Racial studies, Vol 24 No. 2 March 2001 pp. 195 – 217. Post-national citizenship.

[ii] Berger, Stefan, ‘History and national identity: why they should remain divorced’, History & Policy, December 2007


This is an excellent reason why as much information as possible should be publically and internationally available[i]. China’s entry into the Korean war was justified on grounds of national security at the time and that line has been doggedly followed since. Truman thought it was “a bald attempt to blackmail the UN”[ii] at the time and the opinion of many has not changed since. The US and Korea have had to face some of their demons about the war since; why not China? It is also difficult to see what this has to do with the foundational myths of the Chinese state, which go back thousands of years, or even the Communist party which come from the long march and the second world war. And if indeed it is a ‘myth’ then is there not a duty to show that this historical record is wrong? National identity should be built on the basis of facts not manufactured mythologies.

[i] Eurozine. Danuta Glondys, Arne Ruth. Breaking the Bonds of National Mythology. 14 March 2011.

[ii] China intervenes (October – December 1950). Korean War. Wikipedia.

Predicting and protecting the future nation

In a much more practical sense historical data may well breach national security. They may well be instances, such as in the case given in the introduction, where governments may even be unaware that there were issues of national security involved until they are brought to light. Data that was not significant fifty years ago may become of great significance later on.

To take a simple, hypothetical example. Laws relating to the ownership of the sea are relatively obscure and often based on ancient negotiations or treaties that are mostly about something else. They frequently involve custom and precedent and, for the most part, nobody really makes a fuss about the exact details. Until, of course, someone finds an oil field underneath that stretch of ocean or the fish supplies of a neighboring area become depleted[i]. At his point, the exact details of those negotiations and treaties become a source of great interest. Thus for example documents relating the Senkaku/Daioyu islets may have been uncontentious and irrelevant in the 1950 may now be of vital importance in an international dispute between China and Japan over the islands.[ii][iii]

In a scenario such as this, there may well be vital national issues that were not predicted at the time of the negotiation or ratification of a treaty. Disputes of this nature – justifying industrial scale claims to mineral and fishing rights on the basis of historical claims are likely to boom over the next few years in relation to the poles as the icecaps recede[iv].

[i] There are islands around the world under disputed ownership for this reason. Senkaku/Diaoyu (China/Japan) and Dokdo/Takeshima (Japan/Korea)are two obvious examples.

[ii] Lee, Joyman, ‘Senkaku/Diaoyu: Islands of Conflict’, History Today, Vol. 61 no.5, 2011

[iii] Gertz, Bill, ‘China-Japan tensions’, The Washington Times, 15 September 2010

[iv] Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Captain Paul Watson. The Birth of a New Manchuria. 25 January 2008.


In such instances, clearly nations will pursue their national interest but, just to take Prop’s example, the ICJ[i] spends most of its time dealing with disputes about maritime law, mostly ownership issues. They work on the basis of investigation and fact. Suppressing information would clearly only be an attempt to reduce the information available so as to prevent an unbiased judgement. To take the Senkaku/Daioyu example yes the China’s may have some documents conceding Japanese sovereignty but that does not end the dispute. Nor would losing the case in such a dispute be a real threat to the national security of either side; the territory and resources would be nice to have but are not vital for either’s economy or security.  So Proposition has yet to give an example of where there would be a clear issue of national security – or even national interest in hiding history.

[i] International Criminal Court of Justice website. Contentious Cases

Open expression

If ever there were a situation where free expression should be assumed, this is surely it. Where no harm can come of knowing something (Prop appears to accept this by saying the outcome can’t be changed) what possible reason could there be suppressing the information?[i] The only possible reason would seem to be that it is more convenient for that small group of people, those currently both living and powerful, that the true details of past events not emerge.

If this is the case then the other arguments for free speech come into play, particularly its role in holding the powerful to account.

Either way, proposition loses; if it’s just the minutiae of bygone times, then why not release it, if it’s the stuff of modern day political discourse then the failure to publish it is tantamount to tyranny. To take oppositions own example will learning that Churchill wanted Hitler’s lieutenants executed without trial will this really affect people’s opinions of Churchill? It seems unlikely, many would have similar opinions in the same situation and will be able to understand Churchill’s position.

[i] This principle – that all things being equal there should be a presumption in favour of publication – has been argued in different ways in different countries. A useful example is the US Supreme Court Ruling in the matter of the New York Times vs The United States.


Opposition is living in a fantasy world. They forget that people do not always have rational responses to history, while the outcome of the event in question may not be changed revealing awkward truths could have unpleasant results, so for example if the Chinese government were to suddenly accept responsibility for the killing of millions during the great leap forward riots or even revolution could very well occur. Governments regularly suppress information on the basis of national security and their citizens accept that as a reality. Indeed most accept it as a benefit.

It seems likely that the only reason Dr Xu’s case has achieved notoriety is that he studied in the west (Oxford) for ten years. The same is true of Dr. Gao Zhan (Syracuese) and Dr. Li Shaomin (Princeton) – the other two high-profile academic detainees. It does rather suggest that the spotlight on their cases has less to do with a genuine concern with free speech and more to do with having friends in the West who don’t think their associates should be treated under the same rules as other Chinese citizens. Western nations have their own rules on secrecy which can be used to prosecute those who break them.[i] It is hypocrisy to deny China the right to do the same.

[i] ‘Official Secrets Act 1989’,, 11 May 1989,

Popular history

Who owns a nation’s history? The current government? Those living today? Scholars?

There’s not really a satisfying answer as every group is interested in and uses different parts of history. It doesn’t sit happily into the usual structures, a defeated power may not get to write the history but it certainly has an interest in it. Within a relatively short period of time the nation that featured in historical events has ceased to exist regardless of what happens with borders and names. China may be the best example of all here; which nation is being protected. The China of the revolution? Of the Korean War? Of the Cultural Revolution? Of the Economic reforms of the seventies or the Economic super power of today? What about the Imperial China? Which dynasty? For any nation, the question can be asked, which class, which race, which generation, gender, political creed and so on have a claim to the collective history of the nation.[i]

History must therefore be in the open so that everyone can investigate it and can build their own historical narratives. Secrecy by the government is an attempt to claim ownership of shared events that cannot be owned. As history is an essential part of the creation of an identity government attempts at ownership are a direct attack on an individual’s right to decide their own identity.

[i] Berger, Stefan, ‘History and national identity: why they should remain divorced’, History & Policy, December 2007,


Ownership of the past, for the purposes of this debate, would seem all too evident. Governments determine what information is legitimate to publish both domestically and internationally and do so in the interests of the state. The recent outcry from Western governments about the Wikileaks publication of diplomatic cables dating back to the mid-sixties suggests that Western governments take a somewhat different attitude when it is their historical national security being broadcast. The ongoing detention of Bradley Manning in solitary confinement further suggests that they take a rather more supra-judicial approach than the Chinese[i].

[i] One of many sites to notice this double standard between the West commenting on other nations’ dissidents and dealing with its own is: Lankaweb. Hameed Abdul Karim. If Bradley Manning were Chinese... 16 June 2012.

‘It will come out eventually’

Journalism is sometimes called the first draft of history. That does, of course, raise the issue of who writes the final draft. On the basis that historians still argue about the events of centuries and millennia ago, the notion of a final draft may be absurd; however conclusions will be drawn at some point. Politicians trying to hold back historical judgement is a little like trying to hold back the tide, even if the facts are not all available the void will be filled with speculation to explain the gap.

Ultimately information will emerge and will be assessed. The question seems to be when that should take place. Those states that make use of a ‘thirty year rule’ or something similar to protect particular documents such as cabinet minutes do so to allow the free exchange of ideas in the present.[i] Such a length of time seems sufficient to let politicians and civil servants operate without endlessly focussing on their legacies.

However, beyond that trying to control the assessment of history seems to be an exercise in futility. Even the deepest, darkest secrets tend to be extrapolated when they’re not demonstrated. Imprisoning historians and banning things only tends to confirm the view that they were right and there is something damning being hidden. Ultimately, it’s self-defeating.

[i] BBC News, ‘Secret papers face faster release’, 29 January 2009,


By definition, we don’t know what is suppressed by governments; who knows, maybe there are aliens at Roswell, Presley is alive and well and Nixon shot Kennedy. However, unofficial leaks as well as official reclassifications of secret data always excite interest, so it seems reasonable to assume that there is some information that remains classified with good reason. However old information such as military ciphers, designs for armaments and discussions that suggests more than usual levels of incompetence of mendacity among the political classes, they are likely to remain secret – for the excellent reason that confidence in the entire system depends on it. For better or worse, that process tends to be called national security. 


BBC News, ‘Secret papers face faster release’, 29 January 2009,

‘Profile: Dokdo/Takeshima islands’, BBC News, 10 August 2012,

Berger, Stefan, ‘History and national identity: why they should remain divorced’, History & Policy, December 2007,

Cobain, Ian, ‘Britain favoured execution over Nuremberg trials for Nazi leaders’, The Guardian, 26 October 2012,

Gertz, Bill, ‘China-Japan tensions’, The Washington Times, 15 September 2010,

Glondys, Danuta, and Ruth, Arne, ‘Breaking the Bonds of National Mythology’, Eurozine, 14 March 2011.

Karim, Hameed Abdul, ‘If Bradley Manning Were Chinese’, Lankaweb, 16 June 2012,

International Criminal Court of Justice website. ‘List of Contentious Cases by date of introduction’.

Lee, Joyman, ‘Senkaku/Diaoyu: Islands of Conflict’, History Today, Vol. 61 no.5, 2011,

‘Official Secrets Act 1989’,, 11 May 1989,

Rosenthal, Elisabeth, ‘Race is on as ice melt reveals arctic treasures’, The New York Times, 18 September 2012,

Tambini, D., ‘Post-national citizenship’, Ethnic and Racial studies, Vol 24 No. 2, March 2001, pp. 195 – 217,

Tisdall, Simon, ‘China and Japan: a dangerous standoff over the Senkaku islands’,, 17 September 2012,

‘China intervenes (October – December 1950) Korean War’, Wikipedia, accessed 14 December 2012

‘New York Times Co. V. United States’, Wikipedia, accessed 14 December 2012


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