Thursday, August 7, 2014

The People's Republic of Amnesia by Louisa Lim

The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited Louisa Lim is an experienced China-watcher and has been an NPR and BBC reporter in China for at least a decade. She has completely captured a strange phenomenon of modern-day China: the heady mix of strong-arm political repression and an intolerant nationalism that is captured in the term “moral absolutism.” She shares the candid views of a cross-section of Chinese citizens and in the process manages to give an excellent update to our view of post-Tiananmen China.

Lim gives us a series of snapshots that capture the ambiguity and nervous pride with which ordinary citizens view their government: “aren’t we better off than we were four years ago?” When a young girl chooses “official” as her desired profession “because they have more things,” there must be some sidelong glances and reluctant acknowledgements at the unevenness of officialdom's wealth creation. But the political consciousness of ordinary citizens is strangely truncated. Those aspiring to work for the government do so for economic security, not with hopes of political change or influence.

The conversation started in 1989 by students at Tiananmen Square was not then ripe for democracy in China as we know it in the West, but some officials knew the risks to the Party and to the country of avoiding discussion of political reform and for suppressing the protests without some acknowledgement of their underlying discontents. That the conversation has been so utterly changed since the loosening of restraints with economic freedoms should not amaze me as much as it has. The government has effectively erased the memory of 1989, so much so that young people don’t even know about that time, and older folks don’t want to talk about it. How so many people can willfully forget that earlier moment when the stability of the Party was in jeopardy is explained: China’s turn towards economic liberalization happened because of Tiananmen.

Lim peels back the veil on the events in Chengdu during June 1989 when protestors sympathetic to students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square also marched and were also suppressed, beaten, jailed, killed. It astonishes me still that we don’t know the extent of the crime, and won’t either, until the government changes hands. Surely there was extensive documentation: some of the dead in Beijing and Chengdu lay for days in morgues or hospitals and photos of loved ones showing their injuries appeared many months after their deaths.

I imagine one day it will be the Chengdu policemen who, on their deathbeds, wish to be forgiven and come clean with what happened in 1989. They must be as haunted as Chen Guang, the military photographer-turned-painter in Beijing, whose work at Tiananmen on June 4, 1989 haunts him still.

Lim has an easy, clear, and precise style that is not without humorous moments. She juxtaposes lives of ordinary citizens with remarks by former officials. In one vignette, she tells of Yang Xiaowu, “a jovial distributor of grain alcohol” who visits Yan’an regularly, once with his sales staff for a bonding exercise. (Yan’an is where the Communist Party ended the Long March in 1935. A huge statue of Mao Zedong dominates a square built in front of the Revolutionary Memorial Hall there.) “[This is] the right place to come…because Mao’s classic essay ”On Protracted War” was [Yang’s] business bible. He used it to help his team map out their strategy for marketing booze.”

Bao Tong was Policy Secretary for Zhao Ziyang and Director of the Office of Political Reform for the PCP before both were placed under house arrest in 1989. “Describing the mood at the highest levels of government Bao Tong painted an atmosphere so weighted by factional mistrust that any discussion of the issues was impossible…According to Bao Tong, [he and Zhao Ziyang] never had a single conversation about what stance to take toward the student movement. ‘This wasn’t something you would discuss,’ he said.” This remarkable and revealing admission reminds me that fear of reprisal haunts even the anointed in China, though the lack of discussion saved neither man.

What I liked best about this book is the journalistic skepticism Lim brings to the party: everyone has faults, mistakes, and good intentions in their pasts. No one is unequivocally good or bad Even Deng Xiaoping, according to Bao Tong, “went back and forth like a pendulum.” The student rebels at Tiananmen are not lionized, but placed in the context of their historical moment. I incline towards the viewpoint of Jan de Wilde, consul general in Chengdu at the time of the protests: “I don’t think they had the foggiest idea what freedom and democracy actually meant in China or anywhere else. They were still very much [operating] in the framework of a one-party state.”

Tiananmen has not been forgotten by everyone, and the issues it raised are as valid today as they were twenty-five years ago. Undoubtedly some folks have begun to think about what political change would look like in a modernizing China. However, recent rhetoric from the center and the tight control the Party has on social discourse does not hold out hope for a “revolution from within” the Party. The change, when it comes, will be demanded by all those “moral absolutists” making up the population that the Party has created, and heaven help the Party then.

“All blood debts must be repaid in kind…”—Lu Xun

Louisa Lim’s brave and unblinking look at modern China is a book I hadn’t known I was waiting to read.

--Later: Lim mentions Zhao Ziyang's secret memoir of the Tiananmen debacle and I managed to rustle up a copy. I have reviewed it here: Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang. Simon & Schuster, May 2010, ISBN 9781439149393.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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