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.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 22 Comments

Good write up. Yes, I have to admit that I also don’t write anything about the Tiananmen Square massacre, because simply put it’s not something I have any insight into or really know anything all that special about. One can spend days and days trying to debunk the nonsense that’s said about it in very fetid corners of the internet, but why bother?

May 19, 2014 @ 7:36 pm | Comment

I’m reading Louisa Lim’s book right now. I have to say, there is still a lot we have to learn about TS. There has been no closure and the topic, to me, is still worth examining.

May 20, 2014 @ 12:36 am | Comment

If you want to do a good deed – and keep your Chinese language skills afloat -, you might consider translating these memories, written by Wu Renhua, a professor at China University of Political Science and Law at the time.

The document should be here, but doesn’t load at the moment. I’ve got a download of it anyway.

This is what I translated in recent years, plus there, and there.

Might not find the time to continue this year, but will do so next year, if noone else does.

May 20, 2014 @ 11:42 am | Comment

Wu’s document should be here – forgot to add the link.

May 20, 2014 @ 11:46 am | Comment

Next and last try:

http://cloud.molihua.org/upload/2012-2-1/8123745.pdf

May 20, 2014 @ 11:48 am | Comment

Except for this alternative link, in case that the document on molihua is gone.

May 20, 2014 @ 11:50 am | Comment

Unfortunately, if the 228 incident in Taiwan is any guide, there is no closure even when CCP comes out with what they know. The truth in these matter is almost always never black and white, People who believe the exaggerated version of events that gets ever bigger with the shroud of mystery will rarely forsake their believe. And political enemies, domestic or abroad, will never let it go no matter what you do.

May 20, 2014 @ 3:57 pm | Comment

Nice work, JR. Have you thought about writing a book?

The story has not yet been told in its entirety. Reading Louisa Lim’s book now, I realize how much there is about that Spring in Beijing that most of us don’t know. Hopefully in a week or so I’ll gather the strength to thoroughly review the book. It’s wonderful.

May 21, 2014 @ 11:40 am | Comment

Might write a book once the opportunity arises, Richard, but this is actually all by Wu Renhua – not sure if he copyrighted it, but it’s his own work. I only translated or retold parts of it in a number of posts.

In a hurry right now, but I seem to have heard Louisa Lim’s name before – wasn’t she in Beijing in 1989, reporting for VoA?

May 22, 2014 @ 12:16 am | Comment

Lim is an NPR correspondent based in Shanghai. She’s in the US at the moment working on a fellowship. She is great; you have to read her book.

May 22, 2014 @ 5:21 am | Comment

Might get there later this summer, Richard. But every book I haven’t read yet is news to me anyway, and I’m right in the middle of Pope Brock’s biography of (Dr.) John Brinkley, allegedly an outstanding quack who was active between the turn of the century and 1944.

Highly recommended by King Tubby, and from this neck of the woods, too.

May 22, 2014 @ 11:18 pm | Comment

Recommended, but only in the sense that this text illustrates a long history of gullibility and convenient memory loss which exists deep within the fabric of US society.

The 1920s and 30s experienced one of the first Great Fears which focussed on the role and influence of Organised Labour and Anarchists, a demonising process which finds a convenient new target each successive decade.

This neatly coincided with all those praise fire evangelists who sought to free the US from Semitic influences, fornication, likker drinking and general godlessness. Try Aimee Semple McPherson on wicki.

(Here I recall Richard entering into a bun fight with those drivelling idiots over at Hidden Harmonies a few years ago, and his rejecting their claim that the US military had been deployed against its own citizens. Obviously, a little light reading on Macarthur and the Anacostia incident in June 1932 would not have gone astray.)

Then there the Commie menace of the fifties undertaken by that midget transvestite J. Edgar Hoover. (Full documentation can be found in Anthony Summer’s bio and David Caute’s The Geat Fear.)

Black men in the 80s and 90s. Whole scale paedophilia taking over schools and communities during the same period.

China is not the only Republic of Amnesia.

June 3, 2014 @ 7:21 am | Comment

KT, I don’t think I ever had such a fight with my HH friends; you may have amnesia. :)

June 3, 2014 @ 10:23 am | Comment

With respect Richard and much forelock tugging. Admit to many character flaws, but amnesia and false memories are not among them. If there are any readers with superior back tracking skills capable of negotiating the cordon sanitaire the HH crowd use to keep out dissenting commenters, look for my same comment about the Anacostia incident in the thread.

June 3, 2014 @ 10:45 am | Comment

Cool. But this thread is about the government-induced amnesia about Tiananmen Square. You can easily research examples of abuses against citizens by the US government, like the Bonus March – they have not been censored, they have not been excised from our consciousness, even if lots of Americans remain ignorant about them. Wikipedia has entries on all these examples of government excess. You can tweet about them to your heart’s content. Not so in China.

June 3, 2014 @ 11:49 am | Comment

Amnesia isn’t the monopoly of a single country or people, but much of what we describe as liberties are refined instruments of repression. I read the Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck years ago, and it seems that it’s good to have read both Steinbeck and Pope Brock.

That aside, the remarkable thing isn’t only the massacre itself, but also the wall of silence around it, twenty-five years later. Apparently, the CCP – and therefore Chinese “society” – can’t coexist with the facts, let alone open up for them.

June 4, 2014 @ 2:24 pm | Comment

Most countries whatever their political persuasion – liberal democratic, totalitarian, authoritarian or whatever – have past historical episodes which they conveniently/deliberately choose to forget…. a wholesale complicity of silence, and this is despite damming evidence readily available.

To pick a few. France has never really come clean about its WW11 anti-Semitic past and role in transporting its Jewish citizens to death camps. Ditto. Britain and its colonial past in both Africa and Malaya. The Dutch in Indonesia. The pogroms began in the Ukraine and Nazi death camps would not have operated without Ukrainian auxiliaries. (And all this anti-Russian drivel presently purveyed by the Western media is so much drivel for the gullible.)

In addition to the TM death toll, what really rankles folk outside China is Beijing’s skill in tweaking net technology, enabling them to then effectively shape and control the domestic narrative…. when we westerners are still holding onto residual utopian views about this very recent medium. Think back to the rather hippie, global village philosophy of the 90s. Transparency and free information for all whatever ones location.

When it comes to the net in China, we feel cheated of its promise and possibilities.

Whatever, all the TM anniversaries in the world are of little consequence. The umbilical chord which will strangle China is its beyond polluted environment. That’s its real dystopia and just dessert.

All over-the-shop rant over.

June 4, 2014 @ 4:21 pm | Comment

Both pollution and the 6-4 crackdown were expressions of greed, KT. They go hand in hand; ic no reason to play one topic off against the other.

And obviously, any country, big or small, has its own kinds of amnesia. But the question about a political system’s legitimacy is about what happens to those who refuse to forget.

As a rule (and I’m sure there are exceptions), you won’t even risk your job by bringing up the French amnesia issues in France. But you risk imprisonment in China.

So, even if the name of the game shall be They do it too, there are still crucial differences.

June 4, 2014 @ 5:13 pm | Comment

Differences. I totally agree.

Just trying to balance the field of discussion here a bit, since most of Richard’s TM commentary hinges on his use of the term amnesia (memories wiped, altered, sublimated or completely denied).

Pollution = untrammelled greed.
6-4 = a non-pluralist and Absolutist belief in POWER as a zero sum game. (Even thought Foucault provides a different and far more convincing definition of power a bit outside the ambit of this discussion.)

And on a lighter note which makes my heart bleed as I have the critters just outside my front door most days.
http://qz.com/143214/chinas-latest-version-of-viagra-comes-from-kangaroo-testicles/

No cats killing birdlife in my dominion.
And you are also complicit in this feathered genocide, Richard.

June 4, 2014 @ 5:43 pm | Comment

A sleeping cat does no harm.

June 4, 2014 @ 6:03 pm | Comment

And pictures are apparently not allowed.

June 4, 2014 @ 6:03 pm | Comment

Anyway. Birth control is the key. We did a moderately successful job here, and I’m sure Richard’s cats are doing even better.

Some animals eat animals, KT. May be bad news, but you won’t turn a cat into a veggie. Not even this moustached one.

June 4, 2014 @ 6:07 pm | Comment

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