Writing “The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited”

That’s the ingenious title of a new book by NPR correspondent Louisa Lim, who I had the pleasure of working with briefly when I was working on a project in Shanghai in 2010. I just ordered it and plan to review it soon. But the story of how Lim wrote this book is remarkable and bears mentioning now; it brings to light just how dangerous a topic Tiananmen Square remains for journalists today. Lim tells the story in a Washington Post article from earlier this week. I can’t urge you strongly enough to read it all. So intent is China on wiping out all recollections of the Tiananmen Square violence of June 4 that Lim had to go to extraordinary measures to keep her book secret while she was writing it.

I wrote my book on a brand-new laptop that had never been online. Every night I locked it in a safe in my apartment. I never mentioned the book on the phone or in e-mail, at home or in the office — both located in the same Beijing diplomatic compound, which I assumed was bugged. I took these extreme measures because I was writing about that most taboo of topics in China: the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989, when soldiers opened fire on unarmed civilians on the streets of Beijing, killing hundreds of people, maybe even more than 1,000.

I stuck to my rules doggedly. When I decided to throw out the structure I had outlined in my proposal and take a completely different approach, I waited until I left China months later to tell my patient editor. I didn’t tell any of my colleagues what I was working on in my off-hours. For weeks I didn’t even tell my children — then ages 7 and 5 — for fear they might blurt something out at home. Later on, when they began to ask why I didn’t have time to play, I swore them to secrecy.

Lim describes how this year’s crackdown on any attempts to commemorate the killings is being clamped down on early, with activists being arrested weeks in advance. She describes the arrest of five attendees at a “June 4 commemorative seminar,” and notes how one Chinese newspaper reported on the seminar:

Of the seminar, a state-run newspaper, the Global Times, wrote dismissively, “It is obvious that such an event, which is related to the most sensitive political issue in China, has clearly crossed the red line of law.

At least they admit there is a thick red line when it comes to Tiananmen Square. It appears this year it’s thicker than ever. To cross it is to violate Chinese law (though I’m not sure which law that is).

Lim’s book is a series of portraits of witnesses and participants in the Tiananmen Square massacre, including a former PLA soldier from the unit charged with clearing the square. She even tells the little-known story of the crackdown on student protestors in Chengdu. Lim’s book and a second book are the subjects of an exhaustive review in The NY Review of Books. It is a more thorough, detail-rich review than I could ever write, so I strongly recommend it.

Another piece in the NYROB examines this year’s crackdowns and how people are being arrested simply for talking about June 4th. This article focuses on activists determined to speak out, and how the government deals with them. Also highly recommended, if painfully grim.

A couple of years ago a blogger I respect put up a post about how he wasn’t writing about the TSM anymore, that it had been covered enough already and that there was nothing to add at this point. I respect and understand that. For me, however, the massacre is an exposed nerve and I can never forget my own surges of emotion, from hope to elation to disbelief to despair as I watched the story unfold. For thousands of Chinese citizens who remember it, the wound has never healed; some of them are even willing to go to prison for their efforts to keep the memory alive. Yet the government is more determined than ever to silence all voices. The censors, Lim writes, are in overdrive this milestone year.

China’s online censors are busy scrubbing allusions, no matter how elliptical, to June 4. As the anniversary nears, judging by precedents set in recent years, the list of banned words and terms will grow to include “64,” “today,” “that year,” “in memory of” and even “sensitive word.” History is apparently so dangerous that China’s version of Wikipedia, Baidu Baike, does not have an entry for the entire year of 1989.

As I have written before, this obsessive mission to delete the protests and crackdowns from China’s collective memory speaks to just how insecure and fearful the CCP remains, even now, when China is doing well and there is no risk of a popular uprising anytime soon. Why are they so afraid? Whatever the reason, the story of the Tiananmen Square protests and the ensuing violence are an indelible part of China’s history, and whether the Party likes it or not, many voices will be raised to keep the memory alive. The vigorous crackdowns this year only make those who have an interest in China more determined to seek the truth about June 4th.