The Tiananmen Papers was first published in English in January 2001 by PublicAffairs. The extended Chinese version of this book was published in April that same year under the title 中國六四真相 (Pinyin: Zhōngguó Liùsì Zhēnxiàng, translated as June Fourth: The True Story) by Mirror Books in Hong Kong. The book is presented as a compilation of selected secret Chinese official documents relating to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. The documents used in both books are said to have been made available by a Chinese compiler under the pseudonym Zhang Liang, whose identity is hidden to protect the individual from potential persecution. The English version of the book was edited and translated by Andrew J. Nathan, Perry Link, and Orville Schell, who claim to place full trust in the compiler. Speculations about the authenticity of the book have nevertheless been fervent, as the editors were never given the actual physical documents, but rather a reformatted version of the material.
The Tiananmen Papers combines various government documents with editor’s notes and footnotes to illustrate the situation within the Chinese Communist Party surrounding the time of the protests. The documents are arranged in a chronological manner, starting in the beginning of April until late June 1989. It portrays a sense of factionalism and power struggle within the Party, in which the reformist faction is headed by General Secretary Zhao Ziyang and the conservative faction by Premier Li Peng. Zhao appears to have a conciliatory attitude towards the students’ demands, deeming the protests to be mostly patriotic. Li has more of a hardline approach, and attempts to convince paramount leader Deng Xiaoping that the protests are causing “turmoil” and that the students are “networking.” The book portrays Deng, the most prominent Party elder, as the main decision maker of the party. Though it appears he “did not play this role happily”, the internal division in the Party required a decision maker. In the end he sides with the conservative faction and decides to dismiss Zhao, appoint Jiang Zemin as the new premier, declare martial law, and to clear the square by force.
Authenticity and selection bias are two main sources of controversy about the book.
To determine whether the documents presented in the book are authentic is problematic, if not impossible. While a process of authentication would require a comparison of the documents used in The Tiananmen Papers with the original materials, few of these original documents are available. Sinologist Lowell Dittmer, for example, wrote that though “the question of authenticity is key, it is frustratingly difficult to resolve in this case.”  One of the most ardent critics of the book, professor Alfred L. Chan from Huron University College, has taken this argument even further and claimed that not only is the book partially fictional, it is also “based on open and semi-open” material.
This argument not only discredits the reliability of the book but also puts into question the supposed secrecy of the documents presented in it. One of the editors of the book, Andrew Nathan, rejects these claims in a rejoinder and argues not only that the documents are authentic but also that most of the documents are not available anywhere else.
Because a true validation of The Tiananmen Papers will be possible only through a comparison with the original documents (something which cannot happen unless the compiler reveals his sources or when the Chinese government opens up its archives), the validity of the book remains in question to this day.
Although Nathan claims the documents are authentic, he acknowledges the potential issues selectivity brings. “The materials in The Tiananmen Papers,” he concedes, “have gone through a series of processes, each of which brought the final product further away from the raw material of what happened.” While the selection bias does not necessarily infringe on the assumed authenticity of the book, it is biased in favour of the political agenda of the compiler.
In a short review of the book, Fang Lizhi laments that it focuses more on the power struggle within the party rather than the student movement itself. The editors have not only acknowledged this agenda but also identified it as the compiler's wish to “spark a reevaluation of what transpired in 1989 and accelerate political liberalization in China.”
The Chinese government has denounced The Tiananmen Papers as fake, and both the Chinese and English version of the book have been banned in the mainland. One of the editors, Andrew Nathan, has been banned from entering and leaving the country due to his affiliation with the book.
- Zhang Liang. The Tiananmen Papers. New York: PublicAffairs, 2001. ISBN 978-1-58648-122-3. pp.xxxv – xxxvi.
- Zhang Liang. The Tiananmen Papers. New York: PublicAffairs, 2001. ISBN 978-1-58648-122-3. p.xxxix.
- Zhang Liang. The Tiananmen Papers. New York: PublicAffairs, 2001. ISBN 978-1-58648-122-3. p.473.
- Zhang Liang. The Tiananmen Papers. New York: PublicAffairs, 2001. ISBN 978-1-58648-122-3. p.472.
- Zhang Liang. The Tiananmen Papers. New York: PublicAffairs, 2001. ISBN 978-1-58648-122-3. pp.li – lii.
- Dittmer, Lowell. Review Article in The China Quarterly, No. 166 (Jun., 2001).476-483. p.476.
- Chan, Alfred and Andrew Nathan. "The Tiananmen Papers Revisited," in The China Quarterly, No. 177 (Mar., 2004).190-214. p.190.
- Chan, Alfred and Andrew Nathan. "The Tiananmen Papers Revisited," in The China Quarterly, No. 177 (Mar., 2004).190-214. pp.206-214.
- Chan, Alfred. Fabricated Secrets and Phantom Documents: the "Tiananmen Papers" and "China's Leadership Files," A Re-Rejoinder, 2005.
- Nathan, Andrew. "The Tiananmen Papers: An Editor's Reflections," in The China Quarterly, No. 167 (Sep., 2001).724-737. p.725.
- Fang Lizhi. A review in Common Knowledge, volume 8, Issue 1, Winter 2002. 210. p.210.
- Schell, Orville. "Analyzing the Tiananmen Papers," in Time Asia.
- Leicester, John. "China calls Tiananmen Papers Fakes," in ABC News.
- Scobell, Andrew. A review for Parameters: US Army War College Quarterly, volume XXXI, No. 3, Autumn 2001.
- Zhang Liang. The Tiananmen Papers. New York: PublicAffairs, 2001. ISBN 978-1-58648-122-3. pp.xvii – xviii.
- "Interview with Professor Andrew Nathan" in Columbia University Journal of Politics & Society. Published by the Helvidius Group.
- The Tiananmen Papers (publisher's website)
- June Fourth: The True Story (中國「六四」真相) (publisher's website)
- "Release of `Tiananmen Papers' Could Stimulate Chinese Reform," CNN, January 7, 2001.
- "Chinese Government Says Tiananmen Papers Are Fake," CNN, January 9, 2001.
- On a related document by Bao Tong, secretary to Zhao Ziyang: "Secret Paper Shows China 'Rift' over Tiananmen," CNN, April 22, 2001.
- Interview with "Zhang Liang": "`The Tiananmen Papers' Compiler Discusses His Actions," CNN, June 3, 2001.
- A defense from one of the editors: Orville Schell, "Analyzing the Tiananmen Papers," TIME, January 15, 2001.