This review was first published on Beijing Cream on 4 June 2014
Today marks the 25th anniversary of a turning point in modern Chinese history. In the run-up, around 20 key intellectuals and campaigners have been been detained, and security around Beijing heightened. And who knows how many warnings and threats have been issued to the family and friends of conscience-driven citizens across the country.
Such policies are part of the Chinese Communist Party’s comprehensive attempt to eradicate the memory of June 4, 1989 from this country’s history. Louisa Lim, veteran NPR correspondent in Beijing, focuses on this policy and its impact on Chinese society in The People’s Republic of Amnesia. The title of the book comes from an essay penned by a soldier-turned-novelist and fearless government critic, Yan Lianke, in 2003. He wrote that in contemporary China, one must be “willing to see what is allowed to be seen, and look away from what is not allowed to be looked at… our amnesia is a state sponsored sport.”
Lim investigates this state-promoted amnesia through interviews with those involved in the Tiananmen Square protests, such as prominent student leader Wu’er Kaixi, the brave and resilient Tiananmen Mothers, a young soldier ordered to clear the square on that tragic night, a senior member of Deng Xiaoping’s government, and a number of people from younger generations, to whom any knowledge of the events must come through deliberate and determined searching within a restricted realm of information. From these diverse perspectives, Lim builds a complex picture of the significance of the brutal events of 1989 to Chinese society today.
Most apparent from these series of profiles is the generation gap in knowledge and government approach. The last 25 years has seen government strategy move away from the active suppression of information to the careful cultivation of a situation where ignorance is the status quo. Lim sees this shift reflected in official rhetoric. Originally labeled “counter revolutionary turmoil,” the events of June 4, by way of “political storm,” are now called an “incident.”
This strategy has also seen official policy on June 4 move from confrontation to all-out avoidance. In the immediate aftermath of the events, the government drew up a list of most-wanted culprits, a number of whom escaped through a network of human smugglers via Hong Kong, and foreign embassy sponsors and triad organizations across China. The government now avoids contact with them. When in 2009 the exiled Wu’er Kaixi tried to turn himself in to the authorities, they simply refused. “Like football players on the bench, the overseas activists have been removed from the field of play,” Lim summarizes. (Good luck to Murong Xuecun, who last week announced he would hand himself over in an act of defiance against the state.)
Other than the rare opportunity to hear all these perspectives, the real coup of the book is Lim’s investigation into one of the numerous parallel protests and suppressions, Chengdu, an event largely forgotten both within and outside of China.
Through conversations with relatives of the Chengdu protesters, Lim paints one of the first pictures of the brutal crackdown that happened there. “Lacking an independent media to amplify their voices, [Chengdu’s] short-lived scream of fury became a cry into thin air,” Lim writes.
It is estimated that student protests took place in at least 63 cities across the country that summer. That 1989 was about far more than just Tiananmen is a part of history almost totally conquered by China’s state-sponsored amnesia.
For Lim, 1989 marks a watershed in the CCP’s rule. She believes the consequence of the government turning guns on the people and its sinister attempt to erase this fact from history is an ever-growing moral vacuum at the heart of contemporary Chinese society. Her words echo those of Bao Tong, a senior government minister who was purged in 1989. He sees June 4th as having laid the groundwork for a form of governance based on coercion, threat, and violence at all levels. “If that was possible at the highest levels, then why not at the lower levels? … How many little Tiananmens are there every day?’
The People’s Republic of Amnesia concludes on a radical note. Lim, believing facts can never be fully conquered, quotes the fiery language of Lu Xun: “Lies written in ink can never disguise facts written in blood. All blood debts must be repaid in kind.” The People’s Republic of Amnesia is a fearless investigation and survey of the post-Tiananmen era. The government may prefer an epilogue never be written, but it will be — it’s just a matter of when.