A custody battle over an unofficial history of China is the subject of a legal fight pitting the widow of retired Communist Party official, Li Rui, against her stepdaughter and Stanford University.
Li Rui (the latter, a name that means “sharp” in Chinese) is remembered both at home and abroad as a rare and vocal bird – a loyal communist cadre, no less – in the world of silence the Communist Party is notorious for enforcing in its bid to keep party inner workings as confidential as possible.
Diaries Mr. Li wrote over decades that detail his experiences as a party insider (and, at times, outcast) are at the heart of a legal tug of war currently playing out in the U.S. District Court for Northern California between Li’s widow and second wife, Zhang Yuzhen, and his daughter, Li Nanyang.
Spirited out of China before her father’s death in 2019 at his behest, Li Nanyang secured her father’s diaries containing “millions of handwritten Chinese characters” in the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, a library and public policy research center headquartered at Stanford University, where they currently reside.
The Wall Street Journal notes the center’s China collection impressed Mr. Li during a visit to the Hoover Institution in 1989; a collection that includes the diaries of Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of China’s Nationalist Party defeated by Chairman Mao’s Communist revolution.
Caught by the forces of change, Mr. Li joined the Communist Party in 1937, rising through the ranks to serve as Mao’s personal secretary during the 1950s.
His political longevity for the next eight decades, despite periods of incarceration and persecution for unusually blunt criticism (particularly of Mao), created a wealth of experience and knowledge Mr. Li contributed to various books that would later be banned in mainland China, along with his writing in the media.
But that ban did not extend to his jottings in private. The extraordinary insight and detail Mr. Li committed to his daily accounts cover everything from the weather to his discussions with party officials to the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square crackdown, which left him wanting to wail as he wondered how the leadership could “face the whole nation and apologize for the people.”
The Wall Street Journal writes Ms. Zhang maintains the diaries belong to the Communist Party. Ms. Nanyang claims her father asked her in 2017 to place his diaries in the Hoover Institute’s archives rather than risk their confiscation by Chinese authorities, who would likely destroy them. To that end, Ms. Nanyang stuffed her father’s memories into two carry-on bags she boarded on a flight to San Francisco. To this day she marvels that her bags were not checked by customs authorities in China.
Mr. Li’s diaries reinforce that he supported placing the material with the Institute, according to Stanford’s legal team.
Anthony Saich, a China expert at Harvard Kennedy School, who had also known Mr. Li, told the Journal:
“Given the positions [Mr. Li] held and the people he knew, I would expect [the diaries] to be of great significance for research and helping understand the inner workings of Chinese elite politics.”
Stanford argues in a court filing that had the diaries remained in China, where Mr. Li’s words have long been forbidden, they would have been “suppressed and likely destroyed”.
When the Wall Street Journal contacted Ms. Zhang, she declined to answer questions about the lawsuit. She told them the diaries – she describes through lawyers as “national treasures” stolen from China by her stepdaughter – are an issue for the party’s Organization Department where her late husband once held a post.
The material under contention is currently housed in 40 manuscript boxes and related digital files in the Hoover archives. They are open for viewing by appointment.