Published daily by the Lowy Institute

China and North Korea: Following the paper trail

A leaked Chinese secret memo may be less than meets the eye.

Barbed wire fence near the demilitarised zone separating South and North Korea on 3 January, 2018 (Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty)
Barbed wire fence near the demilitarised zone separating South and North Korea on 3 January, 2018 (Photo: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty)
Published 5 Jan 2018 

Bill Gertz, senior editor of The Washington Free Beacon, specialises in scoops. But even by his high standards, his 2 January story that states a ‘(s)ecret Chinese Communist Party document reveals covert support to North Korea, including missiles, increased aid’ was a major coup.

If true, Gertz had succeeded where nearly all before him had failed: he had managed not only to access a top secret Chinese internal document but also to prove that China had a secret North Korea strategy contrary to its public declarations.

Gertz’s story, based on the document, claimed that China’s strategy was to allow North Korea to keep its nuclear weapons, to assure the North Korean regime that China would not let it collapse, and that any Chinese application of UN sanctions would be ‘symbolic’.

So the document, if genuine, would have major ramifications not only in Washington, currently riven by debate as how best to deal with a nuclear-armed Kim Jong-un, but throughout the region and even the world.

To Gertz’s credit, he put a link to the original document in his article to allow us to analyse its authenticity. He also admits the document ‘could not be independently verified’.

At first glance, the document appears genuine. It has all the usual logos, font, wording and titles we would expect. It appears to be a memo from the General Office of the Chinese Communist Party (‘General Office’), a coordination and dissemination body with a few limited policy responsibilities, similar in some ways to Australia’s Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The memo is addressed to the head of the Communist Party’s International Liaison Department (‘ILD’), a body designed to manage the relations between the Party and other political parties around the world. ILD traditionally managed relationships between China’s Communist Party and other communist governments.

In this sense, the memo is superficially probable.

Other information contained on the memo is less probable, but possible. Firstly, the memo is dated 15 September, after a North Korean nuclear test. It appears to be a directive for a November meeting two months later, when the head of the ILD was sent to North Korea as a special envoy of China’s leader Xi Jinping. A two month lag between a directive and the visit is rather long, but it is possible.

Secondly, the memo has a number in the top right hand corner (94) and an issuing body (the General Office). Using Jessica Batke’s publicly-available dataset of General Office documents, we can check whether this is a plausible number or not. (The issuing body puts out numbers seriatim; for example, during the previous Hu Jintao administration the office only issued 20-30 documents per year.)

A General Office document numbered 94 seems high, but not implausibly so. The General Office issued 60-70 or so per year in the first few years of the Xi Jinping administration. It’s not out of the question that they are up to 94 by September in 2017, particularly given that in 2017 the administration changed. But it is possible rather than probable.

However, there are other indicators that call Gertz’s document into question. Chinese journalist Michael Anti managed to find a document issued by the General Office in September, supposedly after Gertz’s secret document, republished on an official Chinese government website. Anti’s document is cosmetically different and appears more up-to-date. It is also numbered 55. This creates significant doubt about the veracity of the purported secret document.

(It may be worth pausing here. Why, you may ask, do we trust a Chinese government website [ie: the Michael Anti document]? Surely China would try and keep everything secret, like the Gertz document? You would be right – there is no incentive for the Chinese government to tell us anything. But they do have to tell the almost 90 million members of the Chinese Communist Party; otherwise they can’t rule. This is why it is usually fairly easy to find a document as long as you know the Chinese characters, and why the Michael Anti document casts Gertz’s assertions in a poor light.)

Finally, Gertz’s document breaches the internal rules of the Party. First, it is a ‘decision’ (决定 jueding) decreed by the General Office and the General Office is not authorised to make decisions. It distributes decisions following meetings of the Party’s ruling body (called the Central Committee), or following meetings of the bodies formally delegated the power to make decisions by the Central Committee (these are smaller executive bodies called the Politburo Standing Committee and the Politburo). Second, there are two characters (印发 yinfa ) missing from the title of Gertz’s document that must be present when the General Office is distributing a decision. Lastly, the General Office is very unlikely to send a memo on foreign policy to the ILD telling it what to do; it lacks that power on its own as it has insufficiently high rank within the Party.

Moreover, the fact that purported document is a ‘decision’ also casts considerable suspicion on its bona fides. A ‘decision’ is exactly that, the final word, the product of considerable debate, refinement, and time. In the Chinese policy system, unlike ours, these ‘decisions’ are abstract high-level documents; they very, very rarely tell subordinate departments what to do. Rather, documents such as Gertz’s are labelled as a notice (通報/通知 tongzhi/tongbao) or as instructions (批示/请示/指示 pishi/qingshi/zhishi). Indeed, the last secret document that Gertz himself was leaked followed that pattern.

I could go into a number of other issues that cast doubt on the document’s veracity. For starters, the language used in the document doesn’t match the usual style. And the Party rarely documents its foreign policy shifts on paper. There has not been a foreign policy document in the most authoritative ‘Important Documents’ series since 1984. But you get my point.

Hence, we are left with other, perhaps more troubling questions: namely, who would fake a document? Why was it not able to be verified prior to publication? More broadly, do we risk rushing to believe what we want to with regards to China, rather than examining what is in front of us?

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