Scholarship and education

Muckracking author Shi Dongbing accused of fabricating his "inside information"

Phoenix Weekly, August 5, 2009

Shi Dongbing (师东兵), the author of a series of books that purport to draw back the curtain on the private lives of China's state leaders, is the subject of an unflattering cover feature in the August 5 issue of Phoenix Weekly.

Shi made a splash recently in connection to the arrest of Shenzhen mayor Xu Zongheng, with whom he claimed a close friendship. When Xu was detained on June 5, Shi announced that he had been instrumental in bringing about the mayor's downfall.

Shi spent five months in prison on fraud charges in 2006, an arrest his lawyer claims was directly ordered by the mayor. Shi says that while in lockup, he turned over information about Xu's illegal activity. His blog posts on the subject attracted national media attention.

But once the media spotlight fell on Shi, complaints began to circulate regarding the accuracy of his books, in particular, a collection of interviews published under the title Confidential Records of Politics (政坛秘闻录). The children of a number of high-level national leaders, including Hu Yaobang, Ye Jianying, Wang Dongxing, Ji Dengkui, and Hua Guofeng, blasted Shi for "distorting historical fact" and "fabricating history."

Xu Zongheng and Shi Dongbing

The most damaging allegations accuse Shi of not actually performing the interviews he records in the book. Southern Weekly, which recently ran its own article on the Shi Dongbing fraud allegations, mentioned two contested claims:

Chen Xiaonong, the son of Chen Boda, one of the other individuals concerned, said that in 1998 a friend had brought him back a photocopy of Confidential Records of Politics from Hong Kong. After reading it, he thought it was "completely made-up." Shi's text did not state when or where the interviews had taken place. "Whenever I got home, my father would tell me who had visited." Chen Xiaonong, who looked after his father, said that his wife was at home for long stretches and had never seen Shi come for an interview. Shanghai writer Ye Yonglie published a biography of Chen Boda in 1993, and Ye claims that he was "Chen Boda's only interviewer." Chen Xiaonong confirmed that Chen Boda passed away seven days after Ye's final interview.*

A photo posted on Shi Dongbing's blog shows Shi together with Hua Guofeng and his wife. Wang Dongxing's daughter Wazng Yanqun told Southern Weekly that Wang Dongxin had once asked Hua Guofeng whether he had been interviewed by Shi, and Hua had said that he had never even seen Shi. Wang Yanqun suspects that the photo with Hua and his wife may be a composite.

Phoenix Weekly contacted Ye Yonglie for its article but was rebuffed: "Ye Yonglie told this magazine that he knew Shi Dongbing but could not comment on the works of a colleague."

At the close of the Phoenix Weekly article, Shi defended himself against the charge that he fabricated his source material:

To defend the accuracy of the materials he used in A Brief Era (短暂的春秋), Shi Dongbing posted what he said was a previously unreleased segment of a conversation with Hua Guofeng, which mainly consisted of a document titled "Speeches from Hua Guofeng, Wang Hongwen, Jiang Wing, Ji Dengkui, Wu Guixian, Su Zhenhua, and Ni Zhifu during a nighttime meeting with staff from the National Planning Conference on July 28, 1976." Shi claimed in his blog post that the document showed how Hua Guofeng had communicated Mao Zedong's instructions to "work in accordance with established guidelines" more than one month before his death. Published party histories* hold that "work in accordance with established guidelines" was fabricated after Mao's death by Jiang Qing to be his "final instructions." In his post, Shi claimed that Hua retracted and destroyed the document upon assuming power, and urged Shi in an interview not to mention this to anyone. Shi claimed, "This is the truth of the matter," and used it to support a conclusion that Hua Guofeng was "dishonest" and a "modern-day Wang Mang."*

A Brief Era

Setting aside the question of the accuracy of his core historical sources, Shi's works are also undermined by how he frames his data, historians say. From the Phoenix Weekly article:

According to the prefaces and forewords to a great many of Shi Dongbing's books, his intent in writing is to shed light on history and to restore a true face to historical events and personages: "They are works of literature, but their historical reality surpasses that of certain people's so-called historical remembrance."

Shi Dongbing's books: where do they get their historical data, what is their provenance, how accurate are they? Are they novels or history books? What connections do they have to highly-placed individuals? These are the questions that experienced readers will ask.

Shi's works always contain extensive psychological description and minute details, as if he was actually present at the scene, and this has raised doubts among readers, and even stronger suspicions from scholars of history. He has so many works that pull back the curtain on high-level goings on, so it's unlikely that he dreamed it all up sitting at home.

Hua Guofeng was flushed and animated, as if he already had a few drinks in him. "Lao Chen, you can't say that. We can't just look at Shanxi. We need to look at the whole country. We're carrying the weight of everyone in the country on our shoulders, and the goal we're striving for is making the entire country like Dazhai." Chen Yonggui, his face dark red like the autumn sun reflected in the Iron Pagoda, nodded: "You are far sighted, Chairman Hua. Chairman Mao must feel at ease in the netherworld." (from A Brief Era)

Similar descriptions of psychology and setting appear frequently throughout Shi's works. "I have never said that these are academic works of history, and I've never asked anyone to cite them," Shi explained. "This writing style was requested by the publishers. I utilized various literary techniques to improve the readability and to heighten the portrayal of characters and setting, but the dialogue and events depicted in the books are drawn entirely from interviews and from the documentary materials I possess. They are absolutely factual."

Faced with requests to make public his bibliography of documents and historical materials, Shi said that it would be inconvenient to release some of the materials in his possession, because certain official documents have not yet been declassified, and others are not even in the archives. Files from the Cultural Revolution have not yet been opened up, and despite recent murmurs about opening Cultural Revolution archives to the public, nothing has actually taken place.

How did Shi Dongbing obtain so many classified materials? He implies that during the Cultural Revolution he went to prison to protect Peng Zhen's mother, and this set the stage for later interactions with high-level individuals: "After the Cultural Revolution, a lot of old comrades wanted to speak out, so they gave documents and other materials to me so that I could write." The Biography of Shi Dongbing, credited to one Wang Zhen, contains a detailed description of this story. Reportedly, Shi got in touch with a great many "old comrades" in the political and arts realms through a certain old revolutionary, and he frequently attended gatherings with them. Because of his creative talent, Shi joined the Houma Municipal Federation of Literary and Arts Circles, becoming vice-president.

Shi says that in the early 80s, it was fairly easy to get in touch with many "old comrades" who had yet to resume their careers, and with the addition of a letter of introduction from the "old revolutionary," he inspired absolute trust, and everyone gave their materials to him. "I had lots of stuff that had not been made public, and even things that no archives possessed." Through his connections, Shi obtained a fair amount of materials on the post-Cultural Revolution case of the Lin Biao and Jiang Qing Counter-Revolutionary Clique, and even attended the trial as an "observer." His interactions with these sensitive characters started him on the road of writing inside histories of the high corridors of power.

Shi has enough of a reputation for revealing the inside secrets of high-level state leaders that bootleggers slap his name on bogus political exposés, but the actual differences between real and fake "Shi Dongbing" works may be little more than the quality of paper they're printed on.


  1. Ye Yonglie gained his own "inside information" through those interviews. One revelation was the source of Chen Boda's name. It is not widely known that "Boda" (伯达) was actually a pseudonym; from the characters, it appears to be a given name indicating that he was the eldest child. He actually had an older brother. In a July interview with Southern Weekly, Ye explained that Chen's actual given name was Shengxun (声训), and he had adopted the pseudonym "Boda" after watching a filmed adaptation of Spartacus while in Moscow.
  2. See this account from the Guangming Daily, for example.
  3. Wang Mang (王莽) was a court official who seized power after the death of an emperor and ruled from AD 9-23. His reign divides the Western Han from the Eastern Han.
  4. This issue of Phoenix Weekly contains a few other interesting articles:
    · A retrospective on the publication history of Cihai, a dictionary first published in 1915 and which is releasing an updated edition, its sixth, this year. The feature includes an interview with Chao Feng (巢峰), a lexicographer who took part in the revisions published in 1979, 1989, and 1999 and currently serves as vice-director of Cihai's editorial standing committee.
    · There's also a fairly interesting piece on religious universities in China, including Yenching University in Beijing and St. John's in Shanghai. It's quite a broad topic, and the article could do with a bit more background information in some places: "[St. John's University] was founded in 1879 as St. John's College by Samuel Schereschewsky, an American Jew," it notes, without mentioning that Schereschewsky (施約瑟) was serving as Bishop of Shanghai at the time.
    · Finally, there's a profile of Shanxi Satellite TV, which is finding high ratings through popular programs that focus on traditional culture, nostalgic songs, and folk arts.
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There are currently 3 Comments for Muckracking author Shi Dongbing accused of fabricating his "inside information".

Comments on Muckracking author Shi Dongbing accused of fabricating his "inside information"

So now that corruption is a "hot topic" in China, people are cashing in on it by writing poorly researched books... sadly, this kind of exploitation for money is so common in every aspect of Chinese society

First of all, impressively long and detailed post. Very good job.

However, there is one part that seems odd, as if leaving out some crucial info. These parts seem not to add up properly:

Shenzhen mayor Xu Zongheng, with whom [Shi] claimed a close friendship.
Shi announced that he had been instrumental in bringing about the mayor's downfall.
Shi spent five months in prison on fraud charges in 2006, an arrest his lawyer claims was directly ordered by the mayor.

One time friend? Or add a sentence to give some texture to their relationship?

Anyway, I am being pedantic. Pls feel free to ignore.

Sorry to be opaque. The focus of the piece was on Shi's writing; the Phoenix feature described Shi's account of how their friendship soured (he apparently reached a limit of how much of Xu's graft and corruption he could tolerate), and you can find a similar story in the Asia Sentinel article linked under Links and Sources.

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