Secret Papers About China Are Released by the C.I.A.
WASHINGTON, Oct. 18 - The Central Intelligence Agency made public on Monday a rich trove of previously classified documents on China, including the supposedly authoritative National Intelligence Estimates issued over the 30-year period of Mao Zedong's rule.
For scholars of what Mao called China's "continuous revolution," of its tumultuous and intertwined relationships with the United States, the Soviet Union and Taiwan, and of the American intelligence efforts aimed at understanding the unfolding events, the documents disclose a mixed record of insights and miscues.
A National Intelligence Estimate published in June 1954 said that "no clearly established factions" existed within the Chinese leadership. In fact, the first major party purge had taken place earlier that year, but did not become public for another year.
Yet in the confusion and chaos of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960's, when radicals published so many documented exposés and denunciations that the flow of data became a glut, a 1967 intelligence estimate correctly predicted the probability that cautious military and political leaders would find common cause eventually.
"As long as Mao is capable of political command, China's situation will probably be tense and inherently unstable," it said; a "disorderly and contentious" struggle would follow, and eventually a move away from "discredited" policies to "secure modest economic growth."
In an introduction to the collection of 71 documents, which are on the agency's Web site at http://www.cia.gov/ and will be released by the Government Printing Office on compact disc, Robert L. Suettinger, a career intelligence analyst and China scholar, says that "unfortunately, the collection provides only a few examples of this kind of cogent analysis on China's leadership situation." But Mr. Suettinger described the record as "nonetheless an impressive one" in which "the fundamentals are consistently right."
Among the most important judgments, Mr. Suettinger wrote, was a consistently accurate assessment that the Communist Party in China was never challenged from 1948 on in its predominance of power on the Chinese mainland.
Other assessments contained in the documents include one written in 1950, on the eve of China's entry into the Korean War. It correctly said that Chinese forces were capable of either halting the northward path of United Nations forces or of "forcing U.N. withdrawal further south through a powerful assault."
A pair of Special National Intelligence Estimates on China's response and involvement in the Vietnam War made clear that China would not risk an open confrontation with the Untied States. One of the estimates, issued in 1966, said, "At present levels of American action [in North Vietnam], we continue to believe that China will not commit its ground or air forces to sustained combat against the U.S."
The documents show that American intelligence agencies were slow to recognize the emergence of differences between the Soviet Union and China in what is known as the Sino-Soviet split. As late as 1966, three years before clashes along the border took the relationship to its lowest state, an estimate described an open break in relations between the Soviet Union and China as unlikely.
A main shortcoming, Mr. Suettinger wrote in his assessment, was "overestimating the importance of ideological solidarity and other centripetal forces within the Communist Bloc at least during the 1950's."
Documents on the emergence and status on China's strategic nuclear forces, the subject of 13 estimates between 1962 and 1974, were heavily censored, Mr. Suettinger writes, but if nothing else, they "reveal that estimating a country's nuclear capabilities - much less intentions - on the basis of a few photographs and other scarce clues has been an imprecise science from the start."
It is a lesson that will not be lost on students of intelligence still looking at the agency's work on Iraq, Iran and North Korea.
Robert L. Hutchings, the chairman of the National Intelligence Council, described the documents as presenting "a unique historical record of a formative stage in China's development" between 1948 and 1978, including "the drama of the Chinese Civil War, the establishment and consolidation of Communist rule, and the Sino-Soviet split."
The collection of documents is the most extensive to be released by the C.I.A. on China. Since 1996, the C.I.A. has released a series of similar collections on the Soviet Union, but those documents were largely retrospectives on the cold war. By contrast, Mr. Suettinger noted that the China documents contained "formative thinking on an existing state, an ongoing challenge to American interests and security."