Louisa Lim's timely reminder of Tiananmen crackdown cover-up
Author interviews survivors of June 4, 1989, military action to shed new light on Chinese government suppression of memories of what happened - a work of particular interest in Hong Kong in wake of Occupy Central protests
It's easy to forget the bad moments in history, especially if you caused them. And in Beijing, no moment has become as forgettable as the Tiananmen Square crackdown of June 4, 1989.
Twenty-six years after the People's Liberation Army opened fire, the central government continues to go to great lengths to hide the truth about this watershed moment through censorship, falsification of history and using nationalism to redirect criticism.
Louisa Lim, a journalist who reported from China for a decade, explores this cover-up operation and the cultural ramifications of selective memory in her enlightening and thoughtful book, The People's Republic of Amnesia.
"Chinese people are practised at not dwelling on the past," Lim writes. "One by one, episodes of political turmoil have been expunged from official history or simply forgotten; from the anti-rightist movement in 1957 that persecuted hundreds of thousands of people, some of whom were sent to labour camps, tortured, or even driven to suicide; to the Great Famine in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 36 million people; to the suffering - impossible to measure - of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s; to the Democracy Wall movement of 1979; to the failed student movement in 1986 and 1987."
This book carries frightfully relevant reminders and lessons for Hong Kong and the leaders of the Occupy movement. Lim documents how the Tiananmen student leaders have lived a lifetime of sacrifice and repression for their actions.
Another important point the author makes is that Beijing has become extremely skilled at sidelining the June 4 dissidents and undermining their relevance in public discourse over China's openness and censorship. Tiananmen leaders have been overshadowed and replaced by dissidents such as the human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng.
This reality points out the constant need for new dissidents to step forward, but it also suggests that the voices of protesters such as Scholarism's Joshua Wong will quickly fade as the struggle moves beyond their moment in the limelight.
"Like football players on the bench, the overseas activists have been removed from the field of play, limiting their ability to change the game. Begging to be let back in and shouting from the sidelines only serves to underline their futility," Lim writes.
Beijing has also become adept at using nationalism to distract and redirect the anger and dissatisfaction of its people. This includes turning Tiananmen Square into one of China's most nationalistic tourism destinations. "After 1989, the Communist Party gambled on nationalism as a way to extend its mandate and offer distractions from demands for political reform - but that eventually will erode the government's mandate," Lim writes.
She reveals many new details of the days surrounding June 4, interviewing people who had unique views of the developments, such as Chen Guang, who was a 17-year-old military photographer and is now a painter whose artwork continues to echo that day in pictures that can never be shown on the mainland.
"People find it very easy to forget, because there is no way to cleanse their consciences," Chen tells the author. "You can only think about things that are beneficial to you. This makes people live like animals. In order to serve your own interests, you can do whatever you want to the culture or the environment."
June 4 is not mentioned in museums, national institutions or history books. Hong Kong is the only place on Chinese soil where those events are publicly commemorated, with its remarkable annual rally in Victoria Park. Today, Chinese citizens have the internet, which, even while censored, offers greater access to information, ability to organise, and connect the dots of protests and incriminating facts.
"Yet the propaganda apparatus has laid the groundwork so well that most students simply have no interest in questioning the government's version of events," Lim writes.
Lim shows the government has been so efficient in its whitewashing that the significance of June 4 registers with very few Chinese youths. When she goes to universities, she finds a shocking lack of awareness, and those that do understand the significance of the date run away from her in fear of speaking about a taboo subject. The result is that the events in Tiananmen Square no longer have any influence on young people.
"Memory is dangerous in a country that was built to function on national amnesia," Lim writes. "A single act of public remembrance might expose the frailty of the state's carefully constructed edifice of accepted history, scaffolded into place over a generation and kept aloft by a brittle structure of strict censorship, blatant falsehood, and wilful forgetting."
Lim saves the most potent research and evidence of her theme of amnesia for the last chapter, which is unfortunate. Here she describes, for the first time, an incident that is a perfect example of how the Communist Party is able to rewrite history.
She writes about a protest that took place in Chengdu, Sichuan, during and after the Tiananmen incident. This event took place far from the cameras and attention of international press, and was therefore nearly wiped from public record before Lim began piecing together memories, photographs, declassified US diplomatic cables and diaries to tell a terrifying tale about Chinese oppression.
The protest began peacefully in Tianfu Square, but soon turned into a violent clash with police. As police brutality escalated, so did public anger. Mobs set public buildings alight and smashed shop fronts.
On the second day of clashes, police took dozens of protesters into the courtyard of a Chengdu hotel that was home to many foreigners as well as the US consulate.
There the police savagely beat the protesters with iron rods, but the violence was not hidden as well as they had hoped. Several foreigners witnessed the attack and saw police load the victims, both the unconscious and the dead, into trucks. The incident has never been documented, in part because the events were eclipsed by the even greater atrocities in Beijing.
Lim uncovers the bare facts of the incident, but we're left with many haunting questions. Who were the victims? How many of them actually died? What happened to the survivors? Witnesses she interviewed were surprised to learn that they were not the only ones who saw what happened. Corroboration gave them courage, and maybe this book will prompt others to step forward to answer some of the questions that remain.
"Lacking an independent media to amplify their voices, their short-lived scream of fury became a cry into thin air, drowned out by the ensuing violence meted out by both the state and the protesters themselves," Lim writes of the Chengdu protesters.
This is a well-written book, and its characters are brought to life with warm empathy. Lim writes in a strong journalistic style, showing a keen eye for history, facts and context. She has done an impressive amount of biographical research into China's dissidents and their stories. Lim's writing is refreshing in its lack of pretentiousness and attempts to appear a clever Old China Hand, a rare thing these days with ever more books about China's rise written by long-term Sinophiles.
However, Lim sometimes relies on substantial passages of exposition that trip up her otherwise skilful storytelling and distract the reader from the emotional nature of this story. The story also occasionally loses its momentum as Lim spends considerable space rehashing the timeline and small details of June 4, which, while interesting, stray a bit too far from the theme of amnesia.
At one point she belabours the minutiae of who ate noodles during the hunger strike - interesting colour of the protest leaders but superfluous to the strong plot she has created.
Republic of Amnesia offers a comprehensive account of China's attempts to erase this ugly mark on its history, including Orwellian measures such as rescheduling a weekend to prevent a student gathering.
Collective amnesia has become a survival mechanism in China, with its people having learned to ignore unpleasant things in order to not endanger their own chances at success. More importantly, she translates what it means for China's future.
"In the short run, such stability preservation buys the Communist Party time; in the long term, that time is only borrowed," Lim concludes.
The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited by Louisa Lim (Oxford University Press)