Monday, December 5, 2022 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Legal dispute over longtime Chinese Communist Party critic’s archive plods on

Li Rui wanted his archives housed at the Hoover Institution's library at Stanford. His 92-year-old widow, who still lives in China, wants them back.

(CN) — A legal dispute over a trove of documents left behind by Li Rui, a longtime critic of the Chinese Communist Party, between Rui's widow and Stanford University, will continue after a federal judge in Oakland denied a motion to dismiss one of the claims against the university, and granted another.

Li, who died in 2019 at the age of 101, was a former personal secretary to Mao Zedong who became a prominent critic of Mao and other Chinese Communist leaders, including its current president, Xi Jinping. A New York Times obituary called Li a "standard-bearer for liberal values in China." Though Li was at various points imprisoned, exiled and left to starve, he remained a member of the Communist Party, and a resident of Beijing, even living off a generous government pension.

His archive includes his diaries, which he kept for eight decades between 1938 and 2019, as well as diaries he helped his first wife, Fan Yuanzhen, write. The archive also includes photographs and letters.

Before he died, Li made arrangements for his papers to be transferred to the Hoover Institution Library, a large research library and historical archive, which has a large holding of materials from 20th century China. His daughter, Li Nanyang, helped facilitate the shipment of the documents.

Li's second wife, Zhang Yuzhen, whom he married in 1979, has stated that some of Li's papers include personal information about her relationship with Li — that they describe, as she wrote in a court filing, "deeply personal and private affairs of their life together, described in, among other things, diary entries, letters, and poetry.” Zhang claims Li intended for her to decide which of his papers would be made public after he died, and that Li's daughter "secreted” the papers out of China.

Li Rui with his daughter, Li Nanyang, in 1978, in the western Chinese province of Anhui (via Li Nanyang)

In November 2019, a Chinese civil court awarded Zhang ownership of the archives and ordered Stanford and the Hoover Institution to turn them over to her within 30 days. Stanford has said it knew nothing of the proceeding until it received the order. The Hoover library's archival reading room reopened in February 2020; since then, Li Rui's archives have been available to be viewed by the public, and some of the documents have been copied. Zhang says the viewing of the archives has caused her "personal embarrassment and emotional distress."

Before the Chinese court's ruling, Stanford filed a "quiet title claim" in U.S. federal court, essentially asking the court to step in and affirm its right to Li's archive. Zhang filed a counterclaim against Stanford for, among other things, copyright infringement, public disclosure of private facts and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Li Nanyang has claimed, in a court filing, that Zhang lives in China and is more than 90 years old, and that her suit is being driven by the Chinese government, which wants Li Rui's archives hidden from the public.

Zhang's attorney did not respond to a phone call and email requesting a comment.

Stanford filed a motion to block four of Zhang's counterclaims, including the "public disclosure of private facts" claim. The university argued that “making documents available to researchers at an archive” does not constitute publication, and therefore isn't "public disclosure."

In her ruling, U.S. District Judge Saundra Armstrong sided with Zhang, finding that because Li's papers were "made available to persons outside the institution," Stanford's actions constitute "public disclosure." The ruling doesn't mean that Stanford is liable, only that the counterclaim can proceed on the merits.

Judge Armstrong did agree to dismiss three of Zhang's other counterclaims, all relating to what Zhang said was Li Nanyang's breach of fiduciary duty. Stanford and Li Nanyang argued that according to Chinese law, breach of fiduciary duty claims "are not inheritable," that they dissolve once the person to whom the duty is owed dies. Judge Brown agreed.

Through her attorney, Li Nanyang said she was pleased with the ruling and "looks forward having the rest of the claims against her dismissed in time.”

There is still much to sort out in the case, including the quiet title claim — who actually owns the archives — and Zhang's eight remaining claims — including the "public disclosure" claim. A trial had been scheduled for early 2023, but that court date was recently vacated after Stanford filed a motion to have Zhang's attorney removed from the case on grounds that he now works for a law firm that has previously worked for Stanford. That motion is still pending.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.