Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to see the author Louisa Lim speak about this book at a reading session. As she was discussing the work she put into preparing the book, in terms of interviewing witnesses in China of the Tiananmen Square Massacre whose accounts had hitherto been unknown or unspoken, I drew on my own memories of the pro-democracy movement in China during the spring of 1989. At the time, I had the impression from TV and radio news reports that the heart and soul of that movement was in Beijing. I gave no thought that, in the light of the economic reforms that were then beginning to take shape in China, this movement was also reverberating throughout China itself. Nor did I consider that there were elements in that nation’s leadership which were apprehensive about the direction and scope the movement seemed to be taking. For though China’s top man Deng Xiaoping was set on modernizing China’s economy, he had no interest in promoting political reform as well. Taken in tandem with the pro-democracy movement and the internal squabbles within China’s leadership circle, once the hardcore faction of the nation’s leadership (under Deng) carried the day and resolved to suppress the movement, the events of June 4th, 1989 became inevitable.
Reading this book has given me quite an education about the impact that the Tiananmen Square Massacre continues to have in various facets of Chinese society and the ongoing efforts of Beijing to make China put firmly behind it --- or better, FORGET --- that there had been a pro-democracy movement and that scores of Chinese had been ruthlessly murdered by the nation’s army. I’m also grateful to Louisa Lim for her determination to get as complete a story about the events of 1989 as possible. For instance, I had no idea that at the same time as Tiananmen Square, there was also a brutal crackdown of protests in Chengdu, in Southwestern China. Indeed, Miss Lim goes on to point out that “[w]hat happened in 1989 was a nationwide movement, and to allow this to be forgotten is to minimize its scale. The protests in Chengdu were not merely student marches, but part of a genuinely popular movement with support from the across the spectrum. The pitched battles and temporary loss of control of the streets in Chengdu show the depth of the nationwide crisis facing the central government.”
Furthermore, “[w]hat happened in Chengdu has not only been forgotten; it has never been fully told. The people in Chengdu were not cowed by the killings in Beijing, but rather incensed by them. However, lacking an independent media to amplify their voices, their short-lived scream of fury became a cry into thin air, drowned out by the ensuing violence meted out by both the state and the protesters themselves. Although Chengdu was the site of some of the most shocking brutality, the witnesses had no one to tell. There was no charismatic protest leader, no Wu’er Kaixi, and while some of those involved did eventually flee into exile, nobody had ever heard of them. The Western witnesses were so traumatized by what they had seen that most were initially purely focused on trying to get out of China as quickly as possible. Safely back in their homelands, many of them gave interviews to the media and contacted rights groups…, but there was so little interest in events outside Beijing that they eventually gave up trying to raise awareness.”
“THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF AMNESIA” is a book that should be read by anyone who wants to have about as complete an understanding as is now possible of how the events of June 4th, 1989 shape and influence how China sees itself and wants its own people to look upon themselves – guided by Beijing.