Louisa Lim (2014). The People’s Republic of Amnesia. Tiananmen Revisited
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1989 was a decisive year for the world: the Berlin Wall came down, the military Warsaw Pact was about to collapse, together with the Soviet bloc and the COMECON –Communism was finally buried, at least in Europe. Even the long Communist Insurgency War in Malaysia came to an end on December, 1989 and, as a consequence of this, the Sawarak Communist Insurgency in Borneo also ended one year later. Among all the governments rooted on the vicious ideas of Marx and Lenin, the People’s Republic of China was by far the worst of them all. By 1989 Deng Xiaoping, who ruled China after Mao’s death, had improved the country with his economic reforms. But that year, when the communist sand castle was being washed away by the high tides of liberty all across the world, Beijing became a bloody battlefield stained by the sacrifice of thousands of students and citizens who, while demonstrating at Tian’anmen Square, were viciously slaughtered by the People’s Liberation Army. Up to this day, the “Tian’anmen Massacre” or “June Fourth Incident” is still considered taboo by the Chinese government. It is completely banned from media, internet search results, and history books, and most of the Chinese people ignore absolutely everything about this crime the government committed against its own people –just 26 years ago. Against this self-imposed amnesia, Louisa Lim brings us People’s Republic of Amnesia, a shivery account of the silenced soldiers, students, journalists, and mothers who lived the massacre first-hand.
The origin of these demonstrations can be traced back to 1986, when an astrophysics professor who had worked in the United States started to talk about freedom and democracy in Chinese universities. The economic reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s had increased significantly the purchasing power of the Chinese people –economic reforms where then starting to take shape in the minds of many young students. As Jan Wong, who was a correspondent in China during the massacre, has pointed out, “when you don´t have to count every grain of rice in your bowl, you become much less an animal and much more a human being. And the more you feel like a human being, the more you want to be treated like one.” Once the Chinese people had satisfied their stomach, they hungered again –for freedom.
But despite Deng Xiaoping’s opposition, the Pandora Box could not be closed again –the Chinese people wanted more freedom. Hefei, Beijing, Shanghai, and many other cities were full of demonstrators between December, 1986 and January, 1987, most of them students. The Chinese Communist Party was divided: the conservative front of Li Peng wished to stop the demonstrators; the reformists of Hu Yaobang wanted to negotiate with them. Deng Xiaoping took sides with the conservatives against Hu, and charged him with treason against the Party. Hu was relieved from his position, the demonstrators dispersed, and the orthodox Maoist elite regained power inside the Party. Everything seemed calm for a while, until April 15, 1989, when Hu passed away from heart disease.
That night, students all across the country took the most emblematic squares of their cities: Shanghai, Tianjin, Nanjing and, of course, the capital’s most important place, Tian’anmen Square. Li Peng was infuriated. He accused the students of treason, insurgence, and of being puppets of the foreign powers who wanted to destabilize China. Deng Xiaoping backed him, and the students went on hunger strike –they no longer demanded political reforms, but freedom of speech, separation of powers, and the resignation of Deng Xiaoping. Journalists, workers, and citizens of any condition joined them. On May, 1989 protests had reached around fifty cities and, only in Beijing, more than 1 million people marched across the streets on their way to Tian’anmen Square. On May 19, 1989 Li Peng declared martial law.
The Liberation Army troops, however, were faced with massive resistance and could not reach the capital. They waited for new orders outside the city but, with no supplies at all, they had to be assisted by the demonstrators, who offered them food, fruits, and water. When the military left the suburbs, the demonstrators were euphoric. This was seen as a disgrace for the Party, and the PLA troops were subjected to intensive re-education training. They were then dressed as civilian and big caliber weapons were hidden in large vehicles disguised as public buses. At the same time, media leaked out a photograph of a dead soldier, Liu Guogeng, who was beaten to death and his body was burn and strung naked on a bus.
According to eyewitnesses, Liu Guogeng opened fired against civilians, killing four demonstrators. Out of ammunition, a mob seized him, beat him to death, and his burned corpse was hanged from a bus. As Louisa Lim explains, “the photos of him hanging from a bus had been framed in such a way as to exclude the slogans scrawled in the dirt on the side of the bus: ‘He killed four people! Murderer! The People Must Win! Pay Back the Blood Debt!’” (pp. 16-17). The Party provided a story for the forged photographs: a mob turned upon his unit and attacked them with bricks, bottles, and iron sticks, finally seizing Liu, a young soldier, 25 years old, who was killed in cold blood. His father cried on TV. The Chinese Pavlik Morózov was born. Troops took the city from any possible direction and disguised soldiers took Tian’anmen Square. Most of the students were able to leave the square at time just before the PLA started to open fire on the unarmed demonstrators and on several buildings. Hotels were searched, photographic film were confiscated from locals and foreigners. That morning the Chinese Red Cross estimated that 2,600 people died, a figure that was corroborated by the Swiss ambassador who visited many hospitals in Beijing (pp. 7-8). The attack against the students was so brutal that many soldiers did not allow doctors to treat wounded students –they waited for them to die and were temporally buried in the backyard of some schools nearby (pp. 111-113). One day after the Massacre many citizens came back, but they were stopped by the PLA and ultimately shot down as they left the square. Even an ambulance was hit and ended up crashing in the middle of the street. Only one anonymous man dared to challenge the tanks moving across the Eternal Peace Avenue –“The Tank Man.” The video, which remained hidden for some days inside the toilet tank of a hotel nearby, instantly became an icon in fighting against oppressive governments. According to Bruce Herschensohn, the picture of the “Tank Man” had a great impact on the Autumn Revolutions of 1989, which resulted in the fall of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe:
“I went to a number of countries in Eastern Europe before the Berlin wall came down. And I was complimenting their courage, and they said, ‘If that kid in China stood in front of those tanks, we can do what we’re doing.’ What this young man did was, in effect, change the world.”
An example of the extent of government paranoia after the massacre is the case of activist Zhang Xianling, mother of one of the murdered students and part of a support group for the victims called “Tian’anmen Mothers.” In 1998 Zhang tried to mourn his son at the place he was killed, but she was arrested in situ and, in order to avoid future trouble a camera was installed there. A camera dedicated to her alone (120-121).
After June 4, many students who had participated in demonstrations, and who were part of the government’s blacklist, tried to find shelter in Hong Kong. Zhang Ming was one of them, but he never reached the British colony. He was incarcerated along with many other students and officials who supported the demonstrations. He was released after serving time, sooner than many other students, and decided to become a businessman. But his fortune came to the attention of the Chinese authorities and he was arrested again in 2002 on a charge of endangering public security. False accusations, threatened witnesses, and finally seven years in jail were the message the government sent to those dissidents and their families: even today, your life belongs to us (pp. 31 ff.).
After the massacre, the amnesia came. It was not just self-imposed amnesia, but also the result of the decisive changes that followed the Tian’anmen Massacre. Although Communism had fallen in Europe, China decided to shut itself out of the game –no political reform was going to take place or, at least, not in the direction of freedom. Textbooks, for instance, were reformed a couple of years after the Massacre, creating the nationalist fantasy that China had endured one century of humiliation and that the Chinese Communist Party had finally ended foreign control over the country with the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949 (p. 137). The consolidation of the Party under Mao Zedong and the unification of the territories –with the exception of Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan– was understood as the highest point of a process initiated more than two thousand years ago by the First Emperor, who also unified China with blood and steel. Because the demonstrations initiated by the students were seen as foreign spiritual contamination, education became nationalist and strongly Marxist –as we all know, Marx was Chinese!. As Cong Riyun, who teaches at the Chinese University of Politics and Law, has pointed out, the result of this kind of education has been that Chinese students today “firstly, they’re ignorant, their brains are full of prejudice. Secondly, they’re made violent by this education of hatred. Thirdly, they’re xenophobic, not just toward foreigners but also they show their hatred towards domestic traitors” (p. 153).
The author of this People’s Republic of Amnesia has faced this kind of hatred and prejudice many times. The book starts with one of those experiences anyone who has witnessed the official nationalist pantomime has also seen: Thousands of people were gathering at Tian’anmen Square in 2014 to see the daily flag-raising ceremony. A women screams: “I’m so moved!” She is a high school grammar teacher who was accompanying his one thousand students on a school trip from Chongqing to Tiananmen Square. It could hardly be more ironic. Louisa Lim, the author of the book, asks her whether she ever thinks about the thousands of students who were attacked by the government at that very place, just some years ago. “This problem is quite sensitive. Let’s not talk about it now. Let’s live in today’s world and not dwell on the past,” she says (p. 3). On another occasion, the author talked to a young guy who was demonstrating against Japanese invasion during WW2, 76 years ago. Lim asked him about Tian’anmen and he mechanically answered: “If you’re always looking back, what’s the point of that?” Kafkaesque. This young lad who was so proudly showing his state-sponsored hate against Japan was actually a Japanese cars seller! (pp. 140, 154)
Another example of self-imposed amnesia and mechanically induced response was an interview conducted with 100 students from the most important universities in Beijing –those universities whose students were killed 26 years ago. The author showed them a picture of the “Tank Man,” but only 15 students were able to identify it. Some of these got nervous, refused to talk about it or even ran away from the classroom (pp. 86 ff.). Some of these even defended the actions of the government, saying that the students were part of a foreign plot to attack China and the Party –which are basically the same. One student went as far as to claim that the image was a forgery, some sort of artistic creation. Feel Liu was a student who met the author at Hong Kong’s June 4th Memorial Museum. He suffered a terrible crisis after realizing the atrocities committed by his government, but the effect did not last long. Back to China, he had the chance to meet the author again, and he told her that “The Communist Party must have had good reasons” (pp. 83-85, 104). More than two thousand years ago Confucius said: “to know what is just and do not act, it is called lack of courage.” But in today’s China there are as many Confucians as there are men or women with a spine.
On June 4, year after year the Chinese Communist Party shows the world how childish and insecure their elite members are. On June 4, 2012 all references to the Shanghai stock exchange were censored because it had fall 64.89 points –a number that recalled the date of the massacre, 6/4/1989 (p. 99). Taxi drivers were instructed to remove the windows cranks so their passengers would not throw “ping pong balls bearing reactionary messages,” and even carrier pigeons were banned from flying (for real!). Images of candles were also forbidden for their resemblance to the symbols employed in Hong Kong to protest against the Chinese government (p. 100-101).
One of the most amusing stories about censorship collected by the author is the case of the aforementioned Zhang Xialing, 76 years old. She cannot even get out to the grocery store without being followed by the government agents in charge of her vigilance. One day she asked them if they knew why she was so important –she discovered that some of them had not even heard about the Tian’anmen Massacre (p. 126). But censorship is also a Damoclean sword. In June 4, 2007 a newspaper from Chengdu published a curious note: “Paying Tribute to the Strong mothers of the June 4th victims” (p. 96). The note passed censorship because no one in the newspaper or the news agency knew what had happened on June 4. However, the author of the note and all the people responsible for its publication were arrested and put under surveillance for months. Three editors lost their jobs and the news agency was shut down. The Party then initiated a new strategy to avoid this kind of incidents –they decided to face the incident. On June 4, 2009 the “June 4th Incident” was publicly addressed and two years later the China Daily published a note under the title “Tiananmen Massacre: A Myth,” which blamed the U.S. and the CIA for the invention of the massacre (p. 97).
Finally, I would like to address one of the most important stories collected by Louisa Lim: the discovering of many “other Tiananmen” that also took place at the same time. The author presents, for the first time, a series of photographs from foreign students in Chengdu who witnessed a demonstration of 1,700 students at Tianfu Square, in response to violence in the capital. Officially, these incidents resulted in eight deaths and two thousand wounded, but some witnesses speak of 7,000 deaths. According to some foreigners who were at a hotel nearby, many demonstrators were rounded up, their heads smashed up with iron rods, and their bodies carried on trucks. When years later some of the witnesses returned to the city, there were still rumors of missing students (pp. 182 ff.).
As I have pointed out many times, it is impossible to understand modern China if we do not take into account 1989. There is a “before” and an “after” the Tian’anmen Massacre in Chinese politics, economics, history, and education. As Gates Hill puts it, “The political crackdown after Tiananmen was followed by a low-key but strikingly efficient economic repression aimed at disrupting the accumulation of private capital and the lowering of consumption” (p. 175). Nevertheless, the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping, usually praised by Western apologists, have also led to a new amnesia. Because Deng Xiaoping was in fact, as the survivors of the massacre recognize, a terrible dictator that not only let it happen (p. 173), but who never regretted his decision, as Deng’s daughter confessed to Ezra Vogel, biographer of the Chinese leader. For Deng Xiaoping the students “aimed at overthrowing the Socialist system and establishing a ‘totally Western-dependent bourgeois republic’” (p. 24).
In 1990 Hideyuki Kikuchi’s novel “A Wind Called Amnesia” was brought to the big screen. In the cinematographic version, the government had created robots to control demonstrators who were causing turmoil … in 1989. A couple of years later, a mysterious wind had erased all the memories of every single human being –their names, their jobs, everything was taken away, with mankind reduced to a state of pure anarchy and savagery. An amnesia that came to China due to the cowardice and self-censorship of a population who chose the “social pact” –as John Pomfret, one of the journalists who helped dissident students reach Hong Kong– over freedom, an amnesia that allows a middle class to live comfortably in the big cities of Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou, at the expense of the rest of their fellow citizens. The Tian’anmen demonstration was not the first, but it is possible that it will be the last. In 1979 a less-known Democracy Wall Movement was supported by Deng Xiaoping, who was at the time visiting the United States. But the protestors were still controlled and dispersed without any major incident. They were the lucky ones. On March 18, 1926 many demonstrators against Japanese attacks were executed, also in Tian’anmen Square, by their own government. There were 47 deaths and hundreds were injured. Lu Xun, the well-known Chinese novelist, wrote these prophetic words after the massacre: “This is not the conclusion of an incident, but a new beginning” (p. 206).
The Tian’anmen Mothers have pointed out recently that incoming President Xi Jinping is not improving the country and undertaking political reforms, but his “are giant steps backwards towards [the] Maoist orthodoxy” that ruined China (pp. 129-130). If we wish to look for a quality indicator of Xi Jinping’s policies, let’s not forget that the official motto of the 2008 Chinese Olympics was “One world, one dream”. Xi’s new motto is the “Chinese Dream” and an artificially inflated economy meant to satisfy the propagandistic requirements of this new “Great Leap Forward.”
The price of amnesia is, Victor Hanson once said, a loss of freedom and prosperity. Chinese nationalism has manipulated history in order to make 1,400 million people forget what their government did 26 years ago. It would be worth that, at least, the rest of us don’t make the same mistake.