A purposeful amnesia about the Tiananmen Square massacre
Louisa Lim’s new book, “The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited,” reconstructs the events and aftermath of Tiananmen Square, the protest the Chinese government hopes to forever erase from the country’s memory.
Special to The Seattle Times
‘The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited’
by Louisa Lim
Oxford University Press, 264 pp., $24.95
On June 4, 1989, when China’s government sent soldiers into Tiananmen Square, it seemed as if the world’s most populous country had been upended by an earthquake. But in the China of a quarter-century later what it calls “the June 4th incident” has become an un-event.
The democracy movement was an attempt at political change that came to grief. China’s government doesn’t want to talk about it, most Chinese don’t want to talk about it, and many young people don’t even know about it, says Louisa Lim, who worked in China for the BBC and National Public Radio.
Lim has set out to correct the deficiency. She has interviewed Chinese who tell vivid stories of what happened then and since. She devotes chapters to Wu’er Kaixi, the protest-movement “general” who rode the winds of history at age 21, and is now politically becalmed on Taiwan; Bao Tong, the high official who spent seven years in solitary confinement; Zhang Ming, a protester who served three years in prison for “attempting to overthrow the socialist system” and seven more for supposed economic crimes; and Zhang Xianling and Ding Zilin, who organized a crusade of mothers of the dead (this group has compiled the deaths of 202 protesters).
Another chapter portrays Chen Guang, who was a soldier at Tiananmen in 1989 and is now an artist who paints images of the day he can’t get out of his head. The government leaves him free to paint what he wants, but not to exhibit his work.
The character in this collection that may be the most significant is the complete unknown, a 32-year-old named Gao Yong. He is a Chinese everyman who goes to Beijing to buy a shipment of used cars and gets caught up in a protest against Japan. The protest is about Japan’s claim to an uninhabited island in the Pacific. The protest is officially sanctioned, and Gao joins it because he is a patriot. Lim picks him out of the crowd as he shouts slogans, including “End Japanese Imperialism!” and “Declare War!”
The slogans are preposterous, but they do political work: they focus the people’s anger at a foreign government, not their own.
Until 1989, the Communist Party presented China’s history through a Marxist lens, as a struggle of workers versus landlords. Since then, says Lim, it has presented history as injury, under the motto: “Never Forget National Humiliation.” The villains are the countries that have invaded the homeland, particularly Japan in World War II, and the heroes are those who defended the homeland: the Communists.
The new version doesn’t argue with the story of the democracy movement of 1989 or distort it. It leaves it out.
Lim puts the story of the democracy protests back in, as remembered by a handful of very individual witnesses. She has an extra chapter on the protest and crackdown in Chengdu, Sichuan province, which was totally ignored by the West. Lim has done groundbreaking work on the Chengdu crackdown and has photos of it.
This book represents hard work and persistence by an international journalist and courage by her Chinese sources. These are stories readers will find difficult to consign to the memory hole.
Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle writer.