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.
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?"