Urgent Update on Foreign Ministry Archives, Beijing


I recently had the opportunity to revisit the Foreign Ministry Archives (early July 2013). Previous stints had been in the summer of 2011, when I spent over a month perusing sources, and last summer, when I could only spend about a week. Amanda Shuman, who wrote the introduction to this archive, was a fellow researcher during the summer of 2011. Last year, most of the rules and regulations that Amanda described in her introduction were still in effect. The collection, some 80,000 items ranging from 1949 to 1966, appeared to be the same. Getting permission to print seemed a little harder—there was greater oversight and less flexibility on what was permissible—and while not explicitly stated, a letter of introduction from a local danwei had become the de facto way of gaining access. All in all, in spite of the changes, the archive remained a useful resource for early PRC history.

This year, however, several changes have taken place in terms of access as well as availability. They may serve to substantially reduce the value of this archive for future researchers. Below is a list of the most salient changes.

Access: Unlike in previous years, a letter of introduction from a local institution (danwei) is necessary to gain permission to use the archives. This is a fairly standard requirement across China, and the FMA, having permitted people to register just with their passport in earlier years, is merely reverting to the mean it would seem.

Collection: In 2011 and 2012, the total number of items numbered about 80,000. This year the entire collection has shrunk to 8,000 items—10% of the earlier corpus. Not a single one of the files I consulted in 2011 and 2012 was available in 2013. A substantial number of available files, as far as I can tell, are of the nature of congratulatory telegrams on national days, the birthdays of leaders, etc., and the like.

To provide a sense of how much access has shrunk, below is a somewhat random list of search strings and the number of hits they generated. The list is skewed to my own research interests but even so should indicate the relative paucity of materials on offer right now. In previous years, country searches, particularly those for the USSR, India, England, etc. usually returned hits in the several thousands.

  1. Total items: 8000
  2. 苏联:653
  3. 印度:461
  4. 朝鲜:366
  5. 美国:83
  6. 英国:208
  7. 国际:352
  8. 科学:33
  9. 科技:2
  10. 专家:26
  11. 外交:919
  12. 统计:48

Copying and printing: In previous years, if your request did not violate the various regulations and restrictions in place, you could obtain printouts of documents (5yuan/page). This is no longer the case. The notices on each table listing what was off limits have been removed. The suggestion, and indeed the practice, being that nothing can be printed anymore.

Reasons for these changes: The official reason given to us by archivists for the drastic reduction in access is that a system upgrade is in the works but it has been delayed because of technical problems (the server apparently crashed during the upgrade—make of that what you will). In general, however, this may be part of a larger nation-wide constriction of access. While at the archives, I also heard other more speculative theories but this is not the venue to detail them.

Things may, of course, change at any moment. By next year we may see a return to 2011 or 2012 conditions. But for now, researchers may want to reconsider their plans if those plans call for extended stints at the FMA.

Arunabh Ghosh
Department of History
Columbia University

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  1. A recent update on the archives has just come in from a reader. This information has not been independently verified by Dissertation Reviews: “As of May 13, 2014 the Foreign Ministry Archive in Beijing appears to be closed to the public. When we visited today (June 18, 2014), the glass door to the archive reading room was locked, the lights were out, and no one was inside. A sign on the locked door said that ‘the system malfunctioned’ on May 13, 2014, although the website provides no information regarding the closure or malfunction. No one responded when we dialed the local Beijing phone number on the notice: 65964294. We could hear it ringing inside the closed archive reading room. Two young men in an office on the same floor as the archive said there was no information regarding when the archive might be opened again. “

  2. I had the same experience when I visited on June 25, 2014. I had my credentials checked at the security post at the entrance, and told them why I was there. Then a second person asked me for the purpose for my visit when I entered the building the archives was located. Both times, I was told where to go, only to discover the notice about the temporary but indefinite closure due to a system malfunction when I got to the reading room. The single person inside the reading room hurried away when he saw me.

  3. A recent update has come in about this archives. This information has not been independently verified by Dissertation Reviews: “I visited the Foreign Ministry archives this morning (October 20, 2014) with paperwork in hand and was told by the security guards that they will reopen in December. I do not yet have independent corroboration of this, but at least it is an indication that they are no longer closed indefinitely. John Chen jtc2148@columbia.edu

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