News / Asia

Q&A with Louisa Lim: Hidden Stories from Tiananmen

FILE: Medical workers at Beijing's Fuxingmen Hospital look at bodies of protesters killed by soldiers around Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
FILE: Medical workers at Beijing's Fuxingmen Hospital look at bodies of protesters killed by soldiers around Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
In the 25 years since government troops opened fire on student-led demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China’s government has systematically suppressed any discussion or mention of the event. News reports on that day were instantly beamed around the world, with many images becoming well-known to millions living outside of the mainland. Because of the clampdown of information inside China, stories from people directly involved remain quiet secrets.
 
Journalist Louisa Lim spent ten years in China reporting for the BBC and for the U.S.-based National Public Radio. Speaking with VOA’s Jim Stevenson, Lim told about the extraordinary precautions needed to gather interviews to tell some of these stories in her new book, The People’s Republic of Amnesia.
 
Q&A with Louisa Lim: Hidden Stories from Tiananmen
Q&A with Louisa Lim: Hidden Stories from Tiananmeni
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X

LIM: People who were involved in the event are growing old and their story is not being told. I thought about for so long and I thought, “If I don’t write this book who will write this book?” So I really hope this book will really reopen the discussion about how history is treated, and how the people in China have gone along with the government, and how this whole sense of national identity being created is riding along a history which is false.
 
STEVENSON: Tell me about some of these interviews that you conducted and about some of the logistics involved in speaking with these people. It’s a very sensitive topic.
 
LIM: It is a very sensitive topic and some of the people I interviewed were under various forms of surveillance because of their past. So for example, this one woman called Zhang
Xianling was 76 years old, but she is the co-founder of the group called Tiananmen Mothers. Her 19-year-old son died in 1989. He died from one bullet to the head when he tried to take a picture of the martial law troops. And she set up this group with some of the other relatives of the dead trying to get truth, compensation, accountability from the Chinese government. The first time I went to visit her, when she opened the door, the first thing she said was, “I had a telephone call from the police this morning and they knew you were coming.” So there was very much a sense of being followed and being watched.
 
That was also the case with another one of my interviews, Bao Tong, who was one of the highest government officials jailed after the protests. He spent seven years in jail. He had been really the right hand man of Zhao Ziyang, the communist leader who was deposed during the protests. Bao Tong lived in Beijing still and in his own home, but he is being watched all the time. We would meet in the McDonald’s down the street from his flat.
 
STEVENSON: It’s truly amazing that some of these people, now in their 70s, are still closely followed by the government. There’s still a sense of distrust of what they may be up to.
 
LIM: Yes, you have the world’s second largest economy with almost four trillion dollars in reserve and yet they’re worried about the activities of a very small group of people. It was the women who founded the Tiananmen Mothers who said it best when she said to me, something along the line of, “Isn’t it amazing that the state can be worried about a little old lady like me? It shows how powerful we are, this group of old people because we represent righteousness and the government knows that, and that’s why they’re scared of us.”
 
STEVENSON: Did you ever get a sense in your interviews that some point in time the government may open up a little bit about this issue or are they just content to let it fade into the fog of history?
 
LIM: The world hoped before Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang took power that this might happen. But in fact very early on, Xi Jinping signaled that not only was 1989 not up for discussion but actually anything that happened even during the reign of Chairman Mao, none of that was up for discussion. When I started this book and I just wanted to find out how much young people knew about 1989, actually I went to some of China’s top universities and I held up a picture of “tank man,” the man standing in front of tanks. I asked a hundred students if they could tell me when and where this picture was taken. I was really surprised that only 15 out of a hundred could place the picture as being taken in China and that really made me think that the Chinese government has been very successful in deleting this memory and in making sure that young people are not interested in politics. They just don’t seek out that kind of information because they know that it could be dangerous.
 
STEVENSON: There are millions of Chinese who lived through that time, and remember that time. Is there a sense at all that they have passed it down to their children or at least tell them the events that had happened?
 
LIM: That was the thing that also surprised me, the extent to which they have not passed on to their children. I tell the story in my book of an artist name Sheng Qi. He was not there when the crackdown happened but he was so disgusted by the behavior at the protest, he chopped off his own little finger with a kitchen cleaver. For years later he made artworks using his mutilated hand, works that talked about the behavior of the state, opening fire on its own people, and its attitude towards history. But nowadays he has a young son and he still hasn’t told his son how he’s lost his finger. The reason he told me was that his son is still a kid and he wants to protect him and it’s a knowledge that carries a price with it.
 
STEVENSON: There were other protests, many protests around the country and you tell that story in a chapter called Chengdu. You found that the student protest wasn’t so much about democracy but about corruption within the Communist Party. And interestingly that seems to be one of the top complaints of the Chinese today.
 
LIM: Yes, indeed. I think that really remains one of the reasons why the events of 1989 are so relevant of the leadership today. If you look at all the demands the students had - more freedom, more democracy, tackling corruption, tackling abusive power, constitutionalism - these are all topics that have really not been resolved. And these demands are more pressing than ever today. So I think that’s really at the crux of the fears that the government has over Tiananmen that if people find out what happened, and these are the demands that they have today, they’ll be asking, “Well, what has the government been doing all these years?"

Jim Stevenson

For over 35 years, Jim Stevenson has been sharing stories with the world on the radio and internet. From both the field and the studio, Jim enjoys telling about specific events and uncovering the interesting periphery every story possesses. His broadcast career has been balanced between music, news, and sports, always blending the serious with the lighter side.

You May Like

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

America's Most Exotic Presidential Pets

From alligators to bears, the White House has been home to some unusual presidential pets over the years More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs