This brave, searing, beautifully and sensitively written book builds, Bolero-like, quietly, through profiles of carefully selected Tiananmen "types" - the soldier, the stay-behind, the exile, the student - up to the shattering chapter on "the mother," as in the "Tiananmen Mothers," what we'd call a lobbying group of "little old (Chinese) ladies"/activists who, for 25 years, have sought to get the truth out and to get the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government to "reverse verdicts," on 3-4 June 1989. (Very emotional reading.)
And then and onward, with a score that beguns to thump a little, to martial strains...and a chapter on the thoroughly mobilized contemporary "patriot," completely ignorant - as are most Chinese his age - of the events of 3-4 June, the core of whose patriotism is the aggressive, increasingly militaristic nationalism the Party and government has sought (since the early 1990s) to cultivate in the populace as a substitute for ideology (I mean, who knew that a third of the output China's huge Hengdian film studio involves battles against Japanese "devils" and that some call the studio "a huge anti-Japanese revolutionary base"?)
Down into the home stretch, very like Ravel, Ms. Lim hits a revelatory (no pun intended) peak (especially for an old China hand) in a remarkable chapter on a man some of us will remember as pivotal in late-1980s China: Bao Tong, then the Politburo Standing Committee's secretary and deposed Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang's right hand man. Bao was arrested little more than a week after Zhao's last public appearance and the declaration of martial law in mid-May 1989. He spent seven years in solitary at the famous Qincheng Prison for disgraced senior officials, and now, an octogenarian, lives under perpetual surveillance. Why? Because he has the superpower of "seeing through" and has the system of China's "success" figured out, all the way down to the ground. Bao describes it to Ms. Lim as a long chain of "mini-Tiananmens" that go all the way back to the night the People's Liberation Army fired on its own children. Each odious event - the constant watching, the constant suppression if not quite forcible repression (but that too), the arrests of grandmothers, the obsessive following around and, if need be, putting away anyone seen as possibly threatening the Great Power by saying the wrong words to the wrong person, anyone who threatens to chip away at the collective amnesia, to undo the technique of forgetting history, and thus expose the rotten foundations of today's China - stands as a small-reproduction of mindset that mandated the actions of June 1989 at the Gate of Heavenly Peace. And all these take place with with the nearly perpetual complicity of a silent West, which shuts its eyes, covers its ears, and rakes in its profits from "People's China." Thus do all these single events that accumulated into one mountainous malignancy that ultimately renders "the China miracle" possible and all the Chinese who benefit complicit in the monstrosity of Tiananmen.
Finally, Ms. Lim's - and our - remarkable journey ends, in a Ravelian crescendo, in one of the not-so-mini Tiananmens that have, until now, dwelt in obscurity to both Western and Chinese eyes: Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province, where Zhao Ziyang had as First Secretary led successful free-market agricultural reforms that dramatically increased production and led to a local jingle - "yao chifan, zhao Ziyang" ("if you want to eat, look for Ziyang" - punning on "Zhao"). Chengdu was another scene of the bloody suppression of students in June 1989 - reportedly one of the more than 60 major Chinese municipalities that experienced disorder similar to that of Beijing, but the stories of which have never been told, except in occasional snippets (we've heard, for example, about former President and CCP Chief Jiang Zemin's successes as Shanghai party chief, part of his hagiographic resume when he was named to head the party, state, and military).
Ms. Lim drags the Chengdu story out of the dark, and in doing so stimulated distant memories. Long before the events of 1989, I had stayed at the Jinjiang Hotel, scene of the most heinous events Lim has been able to surface and report. I can imagine looking out my window, into the courtyard where I had watched chefs skinning snakes for the night's dinner, and witnessing instead atrocities, committed by Chinese against Chinese.
And atrocities of a different sort are committed today in the Chinese leadership's failure to admit the success China today enjoys is built upon lies and serial inhumanity. We think of Lu Xun: men eat men. I know: we have our own ghosts in the American closet. (Think, for instance, of Ta-Nehisi Coate's persuasive argment that the greatest of the US economic achievement is built on the grimmest, ugliest feature of US history, indeed, an American holocaust: slavery and its ugly, prejudicial aftermath of lynchings, the denial of Federal benefits to African Americans, neighborhood redlining, overcharging, and on and on and on...) But here in the United States, we can discuss our ghosts, and worry about and become activists for solutions. We're able to expose the lie and have the power to TRY to disinfect the wounds.
But in China, one cannot raise the lies and serial inhumanities, because to begin that discussion risks bringing the entire corrupt house of cards down...and with it, the lives and fortunes of the families and friends who have benefited the most from the rot and corruption that permeates the "China miracle."
We owe Louisa Lim a debt of gratitude for bringing so much of the hidden story to light, and we can only hope that she has a legion of successors who will expose other stories of June 1989 from across China.
"One of the best analyses of the impact of Tiananmen throughout China in the years since 1989." --The New York Times Book Review "Lim presents a sequence of sensitive, skillfully drawn portraits of individuals whose lives were changed by 1989...These portraits show us how the party tightly constrains those who defy it, but they also depict determined resistance and even suggest an optimism among those most directly affected by the events of 1989...[This book] enhances our sense of the human costs of suppressing the past." --Wall Street Journal "[Lim] offers a series of meticulously (and often daringly) reported portraits of participants, the events of that night and what has followed." --The Economist "Lim tells her stories briskly and clearly. She moves nimbly between the individuals' narratives and broader reflections, interspersing both with short, poignant vignettes." --New York Review of Books "Lim's outstanding book skilfully interweaves a wide range of interviews in China with an account of the protests in Beijing and ends with the fullest report to date of the crackdown in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province." --Financial Times "STUNNING and important...The People's Republic of Amnesia provides a powerful antidote to historical deception and a voice to those isolated by the truth." --Los Angeles Review of Books "Louisa Lim peers deep into the conflicted soul of today's China. Twenty-five years after the bloody suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing, the government continues to deploy its technologies of forgetting -- censorship of the media, falsification of history, and the amnesiac drug of shallow nationalism -- to silence those who dare to remember and deter those who want to inquire. But the truth itself does not change; it only finds new ways to come out. Lim gives eloquent voice to the silenced witnesses, and uncovers the hidden nightmares that trouble China's surface calm." --Andrew J. Nathan, coeditor, The Tiananmen Papers "For a country that has long so valued its history and so often turned to it as a guide for the future, the Chinese Communist Party's efforts to erase actual history and replace it with distorted narratives warped by nationalism, has created a dangerous vacuum at the center of modern-day China. With her carefully researched and beautifully reported The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, Louisa Lim helps not only restore several important missing pieces of Chinese posterity that were part of the demonstrations in 1989, but also reminds us that a country which loses the ability to remember its own past honestly risks becoming rootless and misguided." --Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director, Center on US-China Relations, Asia Society "In The People's Republic of Amnesia veteran China correspondent Louisa Lim skillfully weaves the voices that 'clamor against the crime of silence' to recover for our collective memory the most pivotal moment in modern China's history." --Paul French, author of Midnight in Peking "Astonishingly Beijing has managed to obliterate the collective memory of Tiananmen Square, but a quarter-century later Louisa Lim deftly excavates long-buried memories of the 1989 massacre. With a journalist's eye to history, she tracks down key witnesses, everyone from a military photographer at the square to a top official sentenced to seven years in solitary confinement to a mother whose teenaged son was shot to death that night. This book is essential reading for understanding the impact of mass amnesia on China's quest to become the world's next economic superpower." --Jan Wong, author of Red China Blues and A Comrade Lost and Found "A deeply moving book-thoughtful, careful, and courageous. The portraits and stories it contains capture the multi-layered reality of China, as well as reveal the sobering moral compromises the country has made to become an emerging world power, even one hailed as presenting a compelling alternative to Western democracies. Yet grim as these stories and portraits sometimes are, they also provide glimpse of hope, through the tenacity, clarity of conscience, and unflinching zeal of the dissidents, whether in China or in exile, who against all odds yearn for a better tomorrow." --Shen Tong, former student activist and author of Almost a Revolution "Lim's intimate history of the events of 1989 deepens our understanding of what happened, and touches our hearts with its humanity. Where other writers succumb to describing history in impersonal terms, Lim brings the history to our doorsteps, reminding us that we aren't so different from those who lived and shaped history and tragedy. The People's Republic of Amnesia is a wholly original work of history that will alter how China in 1989 is understood, and felt." --Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet "NPR's veteran China correspondent Lim shows how the 1989 massacre of student human rights protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square continues to shape the country today... A forceful reminder that only by dealing with its own past truthfully will China shape a decent future for coming generations." --Kirkus Reviews
An Economist Book of the Year, 2014