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

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

Video Russia’s Syrian Escalation Tests Obama’s Crisis Response

Critics once again question whether president has been slow to act on Syrian conflict, thus creating opening for powers like Russia More

Ancient African DNA Shows Mass Migration Back Into Africa

First genetic analysis of ancient human remains in Africa suggests massive migration from north around time of Egyptian empire More

NASA: Pluto Has Blue Sky

New photos also reveal the presence of water ice More

This forum has been closed.
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.
Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugeesi
Henry Ridgwell
October 08, 2015 8:02 PM
Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

VOA Blogs