The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisitedby Louisa Lim
On June 4, 1989, People's Liberation Army soldiers opened fire on unarmed civilians in Beijing, killing untold hundreds of people. A quarter-century later, this defining event remains buried in China's modern history, successfully expunged from collective memory. In The People's Republic of Amnesia, NPR correspondent Louisa Lim charts how the/em>/em>
On June 4, 1989, People's Liberation Army soldiers opened fire on unarmed civilians in Beijing, killing untold hundreds of people. A quarter-century later, this defining event remains buried in China's modern history, successfully expunged from collective memory. In The People's Republic of Amnesia, NPR correspondent Louisa Lim charts how the events of June 4th changed China, and how China changed the events of June 4th by rewriting its own history.
Lim reveals new details about those fateful days, including how one of the country's most senior politicians lost a family member to an army bullet, as well as the inside story of the young soldiers sent to clear Tiananmen Square. She also introduces us to individuals whose lives were transformed by the events of Tiananmen Square, such as a founder of the Tiananmen Mothers, whose son was shot by martial law troops; and one of the most important government officials in the country, who post-Tiananmen became one of its most prominent dissidents. And she examines how June 4th shaped China's national identity, fostering a generation of young nationalists, who know little and care less about 1989. For the first time, Lim uncovers the details of a brutal crackdown in a second Chinese city that until now has been a near-perfect case study in the state's ability to rewrite history, excising the most painful episodes. By tracking down eyewitnesses, discovering US diplomatic cables, and combing through official Chinese records, Lim offers the first account of a story that has remained untold for a quarter of a century. The People's Republic of Amnesia is an original, powerfully gripping, and ultimately unforgettable book about a national tragedy and an unhealed wound.
In 1989, an unprecedented outpouring of public support for democracy, human rights, and good governance arose in China, but after the massacre at Tiananmen Square, the country set about assiduously forgetting the entire episode. Lim, a journalist with years of experience in China, uncovers stories from that summer, still untold after 25 years, and explores the ways they have consciously and unconsciously seeped into the state's psyche. Even now she is taking a calculated risk: "As the boundaries of what is considered politically acceptable in China narrow, the subtle algebra of self-censorship has steadily diminished free expression both within China's borders and beyond." The concurrent protests and summary executions that Lim uncovers in Chengdu are almost completely unknown even in China, although afterwards "public enmity toward the police… was so intense that policemen stopped wearing their uniforms," and she argues that similar events occurred in dozens of cities. Tracing the fallout of Tiananmen in moving portraits of victims, soldiers, activists and officials, she probes the fissures of the aging dissident movement. Of the new generation, Lim says, "I once asked a 15-year-old schoolgirl in Yunnan what she dreamed of doing when she grew up. ‘I want to spend time with corrupt officials,' she answered. ‘The more corrupt they are, the better.'" (June)
"Louisa Lim peers deep into the conflicted soul of today's China. Twenty-five years after the bloody suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing, the government continues to deploy its technologies of forgetting -- censorship of the media, falsification of history, and the amnesiac drug of shallow nationalism -- to silence those who dare to remember and deter those who want to inquire. But the truth itself does not change; it only finds new ways to come out. Lim gives eloquent voice to the silenced witnesses, and uncovers the hidden nightmares that trouble China's surface calm." --Andrew J. Nathan, coeditor, The Tiananmen Papers
"For a country that has long so valued its history and so often turned to it as a guide for the future, the Chinese Communist Party's efforts to erase actual history and replace it with distorted narratives warped by nationalism, has created a dangerous vacuum at the center of modern-day China. With her carefully researched and beautifully reported The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, Louisa Lim helps not only restore several important missing pieces of Chinese posterity that were part of the demonstrations in 1989, but also reminds us that a country which loses the ability to remember its own past honestly risks becoming rootless and misguided." --Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director, Center on US-China Relations, Asia Society
"In The People's Republic of Amnesia veteran China correspondent Louisa Lim skillfully weaves the voices that 'clamor against the crime of silence' to recover for our collective memory the most pivotal moment in modern China's history." --Paul French, author of Midnight in Peking
"Astonishingly Beijing has managed to obliterate the collective memory of Tiananmen Square, but a quarter-century later Louisa Lim deftly excavates long-buried memories of the 1989 massacre. With a journalist's eye to history, she tracks down key witnesses, everyone from a military photographer at the square to a top official sentenced to seven years in solitary confinement to a mother whose teenaged son was shot to death that night. This book is essential reading for understanding the impact of mass amnesia on China's quest to become the world's next economic superpower." --Jan Wong, author of Red China Blues and A Comrade Lost and Found
"A deeply moving book-thoughtful, careful, and courageous. The portraits and stories it contains capture the multi-layered reality of China, as well as reveal the sobering moral compromises the country has made to become an emerging world power, even one hailed as presenting a compelling alternative to Western democracies. Yet grim as these stories and portraits sometimes are, they also provide glimpse of hope, through the tenacity, clarity of conscience, and unflinching zeal of the dissidents, whether in China or in exile, who against all odds yearn for a better tomorrow." --Shen Tong, former student activist and author of Almost a Revolution
"Lim's intimate history of the events of 1989 deepens our understanding of what happened, and touches our hearts with its humanity. Where other writers succumb to describing history in impersonal terms, Lim brings the history to our doorsteps, reminding us that we aren't so different from those who lived and shaped history and tragedy. The People's Republic of Amnesia is a wholly original work of history that will alter how China in 1989 is understood, and felt." --Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet
"NPR's veteran China correspondent Lim shows how the 1989 massacre of student human rights protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square continues to shape the country today... A forceful reminder that only by dealing with its own past truthfully will China shape a decent future for coming generations." --Kirkus Reviews
NPR's veteran China correspondent Lim shows how the 1989 massacre of student human rights protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square continues to shape the country today. The author expertly traces how the regime's initial success in "enforcing amnesia and whitewashing its own history" is beginning to unravel. Ironically, recruits to the press and security institutions lack the detailed knowledge required to fully maintain its censorship and surveillance. Still, each June 4, umbrella-toting men take up position at the scene of the blood bath, and censors of weibo (China's Twitter equivalent) search for keywords like "today," "tomorrow" and "sensitive word." Lim has mainly reconstructed the events leading to the massacre from the accounts of former student leaders, representatives of the organization of mothers of students killed and former party leaders, among others. The author contends that China's subsequent economic rise has been built on a cultural and political reorganization adopted since the tragedy. She details how campaigns of repression conducted under the slogans of "the era of stability maintenance," and reinforced by a nationalist rewriting of the country's history, have provided a political smokescreen for the emergence of large-scale corruption. Recounting her interviews, Lim ridicules a society in which becoming "a corrupt official" has become a legitimate ambition. The author's interviewees, many of them under visible surveillance, show how this has worked. Some raise questions about the events—e.g., whether the student movement was unique or part of a deeper internal struggle within the communist leadership—and wonder how the massacre could have been avoided. Others reflect on the spread of a crude materialism. Wu'er Kaixi, who participated in the events as a dissident, remains absolutely convinced that "it's the government's responsibility." A forceful reminder that only by dealing with its own past truthfully will China shape a decent future for coming generations.
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Meet the Author
Louisa Lim has spent a decade covering China for NPR and formerly for the BBC.
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The book was well reseached and informative while being well written for common people to read it. I walked away learning more about what happened and challenged by it.
Louisa Lim is an experienced China-watcher and has been an NPR and BBC reporter in China for at least a decade. She has completely captured a strange phenomenon of modern-day China: the heady mix of strong-arm political repression and an intolerant nationalism that is captured in the term “moral absolutism.” She shares the candid views of a cross-section of Chinese citizens and in the process manages to give an excellent update to our view of post-Tiananmen China. <br /> <br /> Lim gives us a series of snapshots that capture the ambiguity and nervous pride with which ordinary citizens view their government: “aren’t we better off than we were four years ago?” When a young girl chooses “official” as her desired profession “because they have more <em>things</em> ,” there must be some sidelong glances and reluctant acknowledgements of uneven wealth creation in official circles. But the political consciousness of ordinary citizens is strangely truncated. Those aspiring to work for the government do so for economic security, not with hopes of political change or influence.<br /> <br /> The conversation started in 1989 by students at Tiananmen Square was not then ripe for democracy in China as we know it in the West, but some officials knew the risks to the Party and to the country of avoiding discussion of political reform and for suppressing the protests without some acknowledgement of their underlying discontents. That the conversation has been so utterly changed since the loosening of restraints with economic freedoms should not amaze me as much as it has. The government has effectively erased the memory of 1989, so much so that young people don’t even know about that time, and older folks don’t want to talk about it. How so many people can willfully forget that earlier moment when the stability of the Party was in jeopardy is explained: China’s turn towards economic liberalization happened <em>because of</em> Tiananmen.<br /> <br /> Lim peels back the veil on the events in Chengdu during June 1989 when protestors sympathetic to students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square also marched and were also suppressed, beaten, jailed, killed. It astonishes me still that we don’t know the extent of the crime, and won’t either, until the government changes hands. Surely there was extensive documentation: some of the dead in Beijing and Chengdu lay for days in morgues or hospitals and photos of loved ones showing their injuries appeared many months after their deaths.<br /> <br /> I imagine one day it will be the Chengdu policemen who, on their deathbeds, wish to be forgiven and come clean with what happened in 1989. They must be as haunted as Chen Guang, the military photographer-turned-painter in Beijing, whose work at Tiananmen on June 4, 1989 haunts him still. <br /> <br /> Lim has an easy, clear, and precise style that is not without humorous moments. She juxtaposes lives of ordinary citizens with remarks by former officials. In one vignette, she tells of Yang Xiaowu, “a jovial distributor of grain alcohol” who visits Yan’an regularly, once with his sales staff for a bonding exercise. (Yan’an is where the Communist Party ended the Long March in 1935. A huge statue of Mao Zedong dominates a square built in front of the Revolutionary Memorial Hall there.) “[This is] the right place to come…because Mao’s classic essay <em>”On Protracted War”</em> was [Yang’s] business bible. He used it to help his team map out their strategy for marketing booze.” <br /> <br /> Bao Tong was Policy Secretary for Zhao Ziyang and Director of the Office of Political Reform for the PCP before both were placed under house arrest in 1989. “Describing the mood at the highest levels of government Bao Tong painted an atmosphere so weighted by factional mistrust that any discussion of the issues was impossible…According to Bao Tong, [he and Zhao Ziyang] never had a single conversation about what stance to take toward the student movement. ‘This wasn’t something you would discuss,’ he said.” This remarkable and revealing admission reminds me that fear of reprisal haunts even the anointed in China, though the lack of discussion saved neither man. <br /> <br /> What I liked best about this book is the journalistic skepticism Lim brings to the party: everyone has faults, mistakes, and good intentions in their pasts. No one is unequivocally good or bad Even Deng Xiaoping, according to Bao Tong, “went back and forth like a pendulum.” The student rebels at Tiananmen are not lionized, but placed in the context of their historical moment. I incline towards the viewpoint of Jan de Wilde, then consul general in Chengdu at the time of the protests: “I don’t think they had the foggiest idea what freedom and democracy actually meant in China or anywhere else. They were still very much [operating] in the framework of a one-party state.”<br /> <br /> Tiananmen has not been forgotten by everyone, and the issues it raised are as valid today as they were twenty-five years ago. Undoubtedly some folks have begun to think about what political change would look like in a modernizing China. However, recent rhetoric from the center and the tight control the Party has on social discourse does not hold out hope for a “revolution from within” the Party. The change, when it comes, will be demanded by all those “moral absolutists” making up the population that the Party has created, and heaven help the Party then. <br /> <br /> “All blood debts must be repaid in kind…”—Lu Xun<br /> <br /> Louisa Lim’s brave and unblinking look at modern China is a book I hadn’t known I was waiting to read. <br /> <br /> <br />