This is not the conclusion of an incident, but a new beginning. Lies written in ink can never disguise facts written in blood.
— Lu Xun, 1926, quoted in The People’s Republic of Amnesia
Memory is dangerous in a country that was built to function on national amnesia. 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 willful forgetting.
— Louisa Lim, The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited
There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.
— Maya Angelou
IN HER STUNNING and important book, The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, journalist Louisa Lim explores what power memory has in the face of tyranny and examines the consequences for a society that has accepted stability in lieu of justice. From the perspective of soldiers, students, and dissenting officials, Lim provides an eyewitness account of the tumultuous events of spring 1989. She introduces people who suffered the loss of their loved ones, their freedom, and their country. And, with the intrepid reporting characteristic of her decade covering China for NPR and the BBC, Lim compiles US diplomatic cables, diaries, photographs, government reports, and personal stories to provide a harrowing account of the lesser known yet equally brutal crackdown in Chengdu. Most significantly, Lim demonstrates how the party’s response to the nationwide protests set a new course for China — increased economic liberalization and personal freedom in exchange for deference to governmental authority — and shifted the official historical narrative from class struggle to capitalist promise and the importance of a unified China. The party’s new aims were to indoctrinate stronger nationalism and party allegiance and to quash discontent with extreme prejudice. The people’s new aim was to get rich. Lim convincingly argues that China’s contemporary problems are an outgrowth of that deceitful and ruthless post-Tiananmen pact.
Lim uncovers the immense resources, manpower, and effort the party has devoted to “stability maintenance” and political indoctrination. In recent years, the nation has spent more on domestic security than on its defense budget. Shortly after the crackdown, Deng Xiaoping pronounced: “As soon as a trend emerges, we should not allow it to spread,” and his only expressed regret was about the party’s failure to provide the correct ideological and political education to prevent it. Textbooks were thus rewritten, and a new framework implemented: never forget national humiliation. China had been bullied for a century, and the Communist Party was its only hope. This action demonstrates, Lim writes, how shaken the party was by the events at Tiananmen; for each dynasty, beginning with China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuang, had burned the books that came before and spared only those written by its own historians. The Communist Party persisted after 1989, but leaders knew they had to rewrite history to maintain control.
Historical revisionism seems to have been effective. In one experiment, Lim took the iconic photo of the “Tank Man” to four Beijing university campuses to survey students. “The vast majority […] looked at the photo without the slightest flicker of recognition. ‘Is it in Kosovo?’ one astronomy major asked.” As Chinese students increasingly attend universities abroad, so too do they become embroiled in disputes with their American professors and classmates. When presented with an alternative version of their nation’s history, Chinese students have accused professors and fellow classmates of misunderstanding Chinese history or of engaging in a Western-led attempt to limit China’s rise. Even those originally open to a new perspective withdraw. Lim profiles one student surnamed Liu whom she met in Hong Kong at a June 4th Memorial Museum set up at a local university. (As part of “One Country, Two Systems,” Hong Kong is the only place in China where this kind of material isn’t banned.) At the exhibit, the young Liu was exuberant, but when Lim meets him again in mainland China, he excuses himself for his behavior and proves more subdued.
The control the party exerts over individual lives occupies a physical as well as mental realm. Across the country, authorities have installed as many as 30 million closed-circuit cameras to create a nationwide surveillance system. Bereaved individuals whose memories contradict the official narrative are carefully managed. For example, the septuagenarian Zhang Xianling, a founding member of the Tiananmen Mothers, a group of family members who lost loved ones and lobby the government for justice and recognition, may never properly mourn her teenage son where he died, for a closed-circuit camera has been trained on the spot. In Chengdu, Tang Deying, whose teenage son was beaten to death by police after being detained in the aftermath of that city’s rioting, has as many as 20 people at a time assigned to watch her. And in the run-up to the publication of Premier Li Peng’s memoir, in which the man sometimes called the “Butcher of Beijing” attempts to shift the responsibility of declaring martial law to Deng Xiaoping, one publisher, Bao Pu, who is also the son of Bao Tong, an official disgraced for allegiance with Zhao Ziyang, a high-ranking party dissenter, came under heat from a team of senior Chinese officials who flew to Hong Kong to persuade him not to publish it. Even the Hong Kong mafia leaned on him. In the end, Bao Pu didn’t publish the book — though he claims for other reasons. Why were the authorities so concerned? Passages hinted that Deng Xiaoping was looking for a way to oust Zhao Ziyang, the designated successor whom Deng had chosen himself, before the student movement. In other words, Deng, long credited as the architect of Chinese reform, was a dictator who used the student movement for his own ends.
Lim admits that at times it’s difficult even for her, an experienced journalist, to understand what’s real and discovers that she too had occasionally internalized Chinese censorship. On the campuses confronting students with an image of Tank Man she felt as though she were committing an “act of heresy — as if I were lobbing an ideological grenade onto the orderly, treelined campuses.” Later, when trying to piece together the events in Chengdu, by the time she returns home from a reporting trip there, she “had already begun to doubt what I had seen.” She confirmed her story, but the message is a powerful one: if even someone trained to think critically experiences doubt in the face of the Chinese propaganda machine, how profound must it be for those who haven’t benefited from the same education? As a former soldier turned political artist, Chen Guang summarized his thoughts as the army advanced into Tiananmen Square: “How could something so big happen?” Some of Lim’s subjects express immense relief to learn someone else is corroborating their story. Their truth had been a lonely burden.
Still, Lim doesn’t let anyone off easily. She takes journalists to task for crafting their own convenient narratives — for example, focusing mostly on Beijing (people took to the streets in 63 other cities) and downplaying citizen violence against police. And she takes a hard look at how elements of contemporary Chinese culture — the traditional reliance on a munificent ruler to lead the people, the pragmatism born of surviving too much hardship, the deep-rooted desire to side with the victor, and the comforts and distractions of materialism — have created an environment that prioritizes self-preservation over justice.
Could another Tiananmen occur? Lim concludes yes, if the many disparate conflicts over land rights, the environment, and corruption grow more frequent and closer in proximity. Lim believes that as the party’s attempt to maintain stability increasingly conflicts with its mandate, its vulnerability grows. The People’s Republic of Amnesia provides a powerful antidote to historical deception and a voice to those isolated by the truth.
Megan Shank is a freelance writer and translator, Mandarin Chinese tutor, and Asia co-editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books.