The 1989 killings in Tiananmen Square awakened my global conscience. I was barely thirteen years old, uninterested in world events, yet tears were falling down my cheeks as I followed images of the students calling for freedom and democracy and then the response of the rumbling and chaos of tanks. Born to a deeply Catholic family with Irish and Dutch ancestors, and living in New York, China was somewhere far away, but it was the word “students”, that struck a chord. They were older than I was, but still like me. “Why were they doing this?” I asked, exasperated, staring at the column of tanks.
Journalist Louisa Lim initially published her brave, insightful reporting on the legacy of the Tiananmen Massacre (here I choose the term from poet Liao Yiwu) in 2014. The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited was received with general great acclaim. The 2015 paperback version includes a new epilogue, reflecting on the 25th anniversary of the violence in 2014. Surprisingly, the cover or back-cover blurb does not address this stellar addition.
The book revolves around interviews Lim carried out with a number of seminal or representative figures linked with June 4th or how that event has been remembered, (mis)interpreted or forgotten. Many chapter titles therefore are terms like soldier, student, mother, patriot, official. These include a soldier-turned-artist (Chen Guang) trying to make sense of the June 4th violence; a Chinese patriot (Gao Yong) eager to denounce Japan in a recent protest; former student protestors (like Zhang Ming, who has a wife who knows about but cares little about the Massacre) who remained in China but suffered for this decision; other student protestors (like Wu’er Kaixi) who managed to flee abroad, but have come to regret this choice; Bao Tong, “the highest-ranking government official to serve time for the events of 1989” (160); and a 76 year-old grandmother (Zhang Xianling), one of the founders of the ‘Tiananmen Mothers’, with resonance to similar groups like the ‘Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires’, demanding to know the truth about their disappeared sons and daughters.
At the heart of Lim’s work is a fear and argument that the Chinese Communist Party has been successful in changing the narrative (86), incentivizing a reason to forget the state-orchestrated violence through the carrots of greater economic freedoms and prosperity, and the stick of severe silencing and punishment if anyone decides to challenge that state narrative. Lim calls this the “great forgetting”, an idea initially formed through her interviews with contemporary students who seemed to have scant, if any, knowledge of what happened on June 4th 1989. This great forgetting is prevalent on college campuses. Lim writes: “It has happened in homes around the country, too. Parents who knew about or took part in the protests now want to protect their children from learning about what happened” (95). At issue is how the value of remembering seems to serve little purpose: as forgetting is rewarded and remembering punished. Lim quotes from author Yan Lianke: “our amnesia is a state-sponsored sport” (50). It thus seems fitting for Lim to provocatively replace China with amnesia in her title, a further irony when one considers the rich and ancient history of the Chinese people and land.
There are many historical parallels one can address here. German Catholic theologian Johann Baptist Metz, trying to face and grapple with the horrors of World War II, and especially Christian treatment and slaughter of the Jewish people, spoke of the need to embrace dangerous memories. These are memories that challenge, and even threaten to annul one’s core identity and belief in one’s orthodoxy, purity, or beauty. Linked to the suffering of others and one’s own complicity in such suffering, these truths demand to be remembered and acted upon. Likewise, in the context of black oppression in the United States, James Baldwin, in his work, The Evidence of Things Not Seen, highlights the need for deep awareness in how what we choose to remember or forget instils a value and power in such presence or absence. If European Americans choose to believe their history in the language of Manifest Destiny and God-given protection, then the cries of the Native American and the African American will be muffled, seemingly unimportant. For Baldwin, echoing similar thoughts of the Native American Crow chief Plenty Coups (see Jonathan Lear’s Radical Hope), the cries of the victims must eventually be heard, especially as the acts of violence against the Other were also damaging to oneself. Thus, philosopher Avishai Margalit advocates an ethics of remembering; and others like Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel call for an obligation to remember. How could such contentions play out in the context of June 4th, when it seems too many Chinese people do not want to remember, or choose to forget; and the elite or aspiring elite youth are satiated by mobile phones, designer clothes, and other expensive, materialistic ephemera?
One of the key closing chapters in the work is Lim’s investigation of similar protests, inspired by the one in Tiananmen Square, that also occurred in other parts of China, including Chengdu, a Chinese city in the southwest. There, too, the government sent military personnel to quell the protests, which resulted in dozens of deaths and disappearances. Again, the Chinese government brutally suppressed investigations and then denied and concealed most of the evidence. Lim writes: “The whole truth may never come out. But what happened in Chengdu was very nearly the perfect case study in first rewriting history, then excising it altogether” (205). She further adds: “In Chengdu, the events largely existed in memory alone, but the party knew all too well that memories are mutable - even the memories of tens of thousands of people” (205).
Global humanity and, here especially, the Chinese people, are obligated to remember such hidden truths. The violence has already occurred, but it is a repeated and double violence when the crime is denied and erased—or even worse, when the victims are rendered into enemies or terrorists. No country is spared these dangerous memories and sadly, the amnesia that Lim highlights in China is prevalent elsewhere, too. If my 13 year-old-self had been told that twenty-six years later such blatantly vile and immoral acts of state violence were no longer remembered, that they were even transformed into something justifiable, what would I have said? Can any words do justice to such injustice? Lim’s work provides informative and ample material to address and overcome such amnesia.
Peter Admirand, Mater Dei Institute, Dublin City University (email@example.com)
Admirand, P. 2016. A review of Louisa Lim. 2015. The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, published in The Newsletter issue #74 (iias.asia/the-newsletter), and posted on newbooks.asia on 7 June 2016: newbooks.asia/review/republic-amnesia