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The Republic of Amnesia
Reviewed by Paul Levine


The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited by Louisa Lim. Oxford University Press: New York, 2014, ISBN 978-0-19-934770-4, 248 pp., $24.95 (Hardcover), $16.95 (Paperback)

Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China by Rowena Xiaoqing He. Palgrave Macmillan: Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, 2014, ISBN 978-1-137.43830-0, ISBN 978-1-137-43831, 212 pp., $100 (Hardcover), $29 (Paperback).

A scant few years ago Louisa Lim tried an experiment. Lim was a journalist working for National Public Radio in China. She visited Beijing's four most prominent universities to find out what China's best students knew of their own recent history. Lim showed them the iconic image of an ordinary man holding two shopping bags while confronting a column of tanks on Beijing's main thoroughfare leading to Tiananmen Square. The photo was taken on June 5, 1989, the day after the PLA opened fire on unarmed students and ordinary citizens and killed a large number of them. According to one version, the young man jumped up on a tank and shouted, "Turn around! Stop killing my people." Then he disappeared. To this day nobody knows who he was.

Lim says, "I was curious to know how many of today's Internet-savvy students would recognize the photo. The students I spoke to are the crème de la crème, the best educated students in China, yet the vast majority of them looked at the photo without the slightest flicker of recognition." One student thought it might be taken in Kosovo, another in South Korea, others thought it might be a military parade. In all, Lim questioned one hundred students and only fifteen could identify the famous photograph.

Last year, I tried the same experiment with a group of Chinese exchange students at Copenhagen University and got the same results. It seems that the CPC regime has been successful at suppressing remembrance of this horrific event where the PLA fired on its own citizens. But it is one thing to suppress historical remembrance and another to erase history itself. In 2009 Chan Koonchung published a satirical novel about collective amnesia entitled The Fat Years, which was, of course, banned in China. Chan writes: "For the great majority of young mainland Chinese, the events of the Tiananmen Massacre have never entered their consciousness; they have never seen the photographs and news reports about it, and even fewer have had it explained to them by their family or teachers. They have not forgotten it; they have never known anything about it. In theory, after a period of time has elapsed, an entire year can indeed disappear from history—because no one says anything about it."

But two recent books on the Tiananmen Massacre jog our memories. Louisa Lim's The People's Republic of Amnesia is a journalist's account of how the past affects the lives of a cross-section of ordinary citizens. Rowena Xiaoqing He's Tiananmen Exiles is a scholar's account of how the events shaped the careers of three major activists. Lim's meticulous journalism is substantial in constructing both past and present. But He's personal statement is moving as well. Both authors view Tiananmen as the defining event in recent Chinese history. Rowena He writes:

The 1989 Tiananmen Movement… was the most serious open conflict between the Communist regime and the Chinese people since the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949. On the surface Tiananmen seems to be remote and irrelevant to the reality of the 'Rising China,' but every year on its anniversary, the government clamps down with intense security and meticulous surveillance…. June Fourth encapsulates the relationship between history and memory, power and politics, and intellectual freedom and human rights in the Chinese context. Indeed, it is not possible to understand today's China and its relationship with the world without understanding the spring of 1989.

Both books focus on the relationship between history and memory. "Memory is dangerous in a country that was built to function on national amnesia," writes Louisa Lim. "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." Here we enter the Orwellian world in which the past is defined by the regime. "Every June 4th, the authorities' level of paranoia can be charted by the increasingly lengthy lists of banned words. Terms deemed sensitive enough to be forbidden include 'today,' 'tomorrow,' 'that year,' 'special day,' and 'sensitive word.'" But in China, Monty Python sometimes trumps Orwell. "On the 2012 anniversary, censors moved to ban any references to the Shanghai stock exchange after an extraordinary numerological coincidence led it to fall 64.89 points, numbers that when spoken in Chinese spell out 'June 4th, 1989.'"

In reconstructing the events of June, 1989 Lim interviews people from all walks of life: soldier, student, survivor, patriot, protester, and Party official. Some of them are remarkable figures who still challenge the "national amnesia." Bao Tong was the highest-ranking Party official to be imprisoned; he was also the first person to be arrested, even before June 3. Bao was assistant to Zhao Ziyang, the Party Secretary who was deposed by Deng Xaopeng when he refused to send troops to invade Tiananmen Square. Now retired, Bao Tong remains unimpressed with the Party's recent reforms and repression. He tells Lim over coffee at a local McDonalds: "During the time of [China's first emperor] Qin Shihuang, the country was great and during the time of Genghis Khan, the country was great, but how good was it for the people? The country can be doing well, but the people can be doing badly."

Lim's most moving encounter is with two feisty women who lost teen-age sons on June 4th. Zhang Xianling, a former aerospace engineer, and Ding Zilin, a retired professor of aesthetics, founded the Tiananmen Mothers, an underground organization which persistently gathers information about the victims and demands explanations about the killings. Lim says, "Under the steady guidance of these elderly women, the Tiananmen Mothers has grown into a political and moral force similar to the Mothers of the Plaza del Mayo in… Argentina." In fact, Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Nobel Prize winner, was attempting to nominate them for the Nobel Prize when he was himself arrested in 2008. It was an honor they wanted to avoid because of all the dangerous publicity. Ding Zilin said of Liu who is a family friend: "He likes the limelight too much."

Perhaps the most tormented figure is the artist Chen Guang. In 1989 he was a seventeen-year-old PLA recruit who was sent to police Tiananmen Square. Chen was so nervous that his superiors ordered him to exchange his rifle for a camera. Chen spent the day taking pictures of the bloody events. When he later attended art school, these indelible images remained with him. "People find it very easy to forget, because there is no way to cleanse their consciences," he tells Lim. Chen has spent his artistic career trying to cleanse his conscience by recapturing the horrific images he once photographed. This is a Sisyphean task since Chen can paint in private but he cannot show his paintings in public. "He knows that he will spend the rest of his life painting what has become the defining fact of his existence," Lim writes. "As a taboo-busting artist, his aim has been to confront the Chinese people with the truth about Tiananmen. Yet how can he confront people about an event that many no longer remember with art that cannot be shown? There is no answer to this question."

Louisa Lim makes another significant contribution to our understanding of China in 1989. While the outside world was focused on the events taking place in Beijing, large student demonstrations occurred in many other cities around China. Most of them ended peacefully. But when word of the massacre of unarmed civilians spread after June 4th, protest demonstrations erupted again in more than sixty cities. One of the most violent occurred in Chengdu, home of the cuddly Panda Bear. "What happened in Chengdu has not only been forgotten," Lim writes, "it has never been fully told."

Through persistent sleuthing, Lim managed to track down eyewitnesses who all tell the same tale of extreme police brutality. Perhaps the worst act occurred in the closed courtyard of the Jinjiang Hotel. Up to a hundred protesters were herded into the courtyard, savagely beaten with iron poles and casually thrown into trucks. "They threw them into the truck, they threw them like garbage," said one eye-witness. "I don't remember anyone screaming. There was no noise, just the bodies piling on top of each other. There were definitely lifeless bodies. I imagined if anyone were still alive they would not survive in the pile. It was horrifying." Clearly, Chengdu witnessed a smaller Tiananmen massacre that has gone virtually unrecorded until now. Just another chapter in the Chinese narrative of amnesia…

To move from Louisa Lim's expansive reportage to Rowena He's introspective style is to experience a sort of claustrophobia. "This book is primarily an oral history of three exiled student leaders from the 1989 Tiananmen Movement in China,” Rowana He tells us at the outset. But her book is more than that. For there is a fourth major character: the author herself. Though she was too young to participate in the protests, she was traumatized by the killings. She tells us that on the day after the massacre, she went to school wearing a black armband. A kindly teacher persuaded her to remove it before she got into serious trouble. But her anger did not subside. "I felt a strong sense of guilt although I was not responsible for the massacre. Maybe that is what people call 'survivor's guilt,'” she writes. "I considered it a sin to enjoy life with the thought that many others were suffering in prison or in exile. I later realized that I was not exceptional among those of the Tiananmen Generation. Ironically, we became the best illustration of the two central themes in Communist education--'sacrifice' and 'idealism'." She immigrated to Canada in 1998, continued her education in Toronto, and now teaches a popular course on Tiananmen at Harvard.

Her three subjects were all leading figures in the 1989 demonstrations. Wang Dan, a history student at Beijing University, headed the regime's most-wanted list after June 4th. He was arrested in July, served a four-year prison sentence, was arrested again in 1995 and sentenced to eleven years in prison. In 1998 he was released on medical grounds and deported to the United States. Wang Dan studied at Harvard where he earned his doctorate and now teaches in Taiwan. Shen Tong, another student leader from Beida, escaped to the United States and published a popular autobiography, Almost a Revolution. Unlike other exiles, he has moved on from the Tiananmen protests. Consequently, he is allowed to visit China on condition that he remains apolitical. Shen Tong became a successful software entrepreneur in New York and in 2011 joined a different protest group, the Occupy Wall Street movement. Yi Danxuan, a student leader from Guangdong, served two years in prison before immigrating to the United States. He lives in Washington DC and continues to be involved in Tiananmen protest politics.

Today Tiananmen is lost between the acts of remembering and forgetting. In China, people have remembered to forget. Shen Tong says that everybody lied. "That is the basic reality of living in a police state. You live a huge public lie. We don't need many theories to understand this." In the West, we have forgotten to remember, mesmerized by cheap Chinese imports and investment profits. "The unfolding stories in the post-Tiananmen era are, in many ways, a continuing tragedy," says He, "because the victims are no longer considered victims and the perpetrators no longer perpetrators. Rather, the latter have become the winners against the background of a 'rising China.'"

Instead, the exiles have, in a Chinese phrase, gained the sky but lost the earth. "Inside China, the exiles are like ghosts or invisible men," says He. "Most people either don't know anything about them, or they believe the official account that those traitors were collaborating with foreign anti-China forces for personal interests, and that had they succeeded in 1989 they would have led the country into 'turmoil.' Outside of China memories fade and urgency subsides." Yi Danxuan recalls the fate of Zhang Zhixin, a loyal Party member who was executed in 1975 during the Cultural Revolution. In prison, the guards cut her vocal chords to prevent her from denouncing the regime before her execution. Today the regime has more subtle ways to silence its critics: Liu Xiaobo is imprisoned; Ding Zilin is shadowed by the police; Wang Dan is exiled in Taiwan.


The sociologist Richard Madsen has compared Tiananmen to a drama "with an unexpected, incorrect ending" because right did not conquer might. Perhaps this pessimism is premature. While China remains oppressively mute, on June 4th the people of Hong Kong commemorate the Tiananmen Massacre with a massive demonstration. Every year more than 100,000 citizens of all ages gather in Victoria Park and light candles to keep the memory of the tragedy alive. This is part of Hong Kong's attempt to maintain its tradition of political and cultural independence from the mainland since its return to the People's Republic in 1998. In interpreting Deng Xiaoping's zen-like description of "one nation, two systems," many Hong Kong democrats have sought to emphasize the "two systems."

But as China exerts more control over the former British colony in the name of "one nation," resistance to the idea of mainland domination has intensified. The rapid growth of the Hong Kong "Umbrella Movement" and the recent refusal of the Hong Kong legislature to accept Beijing's definition of "democratic" elections have intensified the conflict between "one nation" and "two systems." This has taken a new turn as most young people, especially students, move beyond rejecting Beijing's rule to rejecting Chinese identity. Now they self-consciously identify with Hong Kong, not China. In the last June 4th demonstrations some student groups opted out because, they argued, Tiananmen was a China problem that had nothing to do with them. Xi Jinping's brutal clampdown on dissent on the mainland has emphasized the differences between the two "systems" and has led to a flourishing of Hong Kong nationalism.

Watching events in Hong Kong, Taiwanese citizens become more restive about their future as the Xi regime moves aggressively to control the region. Last year, the student-led "Sunflower Movement" challenged the growing Chinese hegemony. The overwhelming rejection of the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) government in recent local elections indicates that the more independent Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), much to China’s displeasure, will most likely replace the ruling party in next year’s national elections. More recently, Taiwanese students have opposed the introduction of "China-centric" textbooks in their schools. At the end of July, hundreds of students stormed the Education Ministry to protest the privileging of China studies over Taiwan history. They called for the resignation of the KMT Education Minister who sought to "reform" the curriculum. As the PRC increasingly insists on defining Chinese identity in terms of "love" of the CPC, many Hong Kong and Taiwanese citizens don't want to be Chinese anymore.

In both Hong Kong and Taiwan the spirit of resistance is on the rise, especially among the young. This student generation is more rebellious than their mainland counterparts in 1989. As a student protester famously explained then: "We don't know what we want. But we want more of it." Growing up in a more open society, today's young rebels know what they want. Joshua Wong, the precocious teen-ager who founded the student activist group “Scholarism”, exemplifies this political sophistication. Moreover, the Tiananmen rebels wished to reform the CPC not replace it. But Joshua Wong and his young cohorts want nothing to do with the regime that instigated the massacre twenty-five years ago. This total rejection of communist China promises a bumpy future for relations between the mainland and its periphery. It seems that the ghost of Tiananmen continues to roil the CPC's dream of erasing the events of 1989 from history. "How do you think we can keep our dream of 1989 alive?" asks Rowena He. "I don't have a fixed definition of the dream," she says. "It is an unfolding story. It is an ongoing process, not an ending. And we are trying to keep it alive." In another context, baseball immortal Yogi Berra said it more succinctly: "It's not over until it's over."white star           

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.

imagePaul Levine is Emeritus Professor of American Literature at Copenhagen University. He was born in Brooklyn, attended Wesleyan and Princeton and received a Ph.D. in the History of American Civilization from Harvard. Levine taught at Wesleyan, Rochester and York (Toronto) Universities before becoming the first Professor of American Literature in Copenhagen (1975-2006). He also held the Salgo Chair in American Studies at Eötvös Lorand University in Budapest (1986-9) and directed the annual Athens American Studies Seminar for fifteen years (1994-2009). He publishes widely on literature, art, film and culture. He collaborated with E. L. Doctorow on a volume of the novelist's Screenplays (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003) and a new edition of America Since 1945: The American Moment, (with Harry Papasotiriou) was published by Palgrave in 2010. He has twice received royal honors in Denmark and holds the title of Ridder af Dannebrogorden, 1st Kl. (2000). Levine first went to China in 2001 at the invitation of the State Department to help create a graduate program in American Studies at ECNU (East China Normal University, Shanghai). In 2004 he was awarded a Fulbright Professorship at ECNU for three semesters. After retiring from Copenhagen in 2006, he served as director of regional studies and the new Center for International Studies (2007-11) at Shantou University in Guangdong Province. He and his wife, Lily Varidaki-Levine, now live in Copenhagen and Athens.

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