‘The Massive, Poisonous Vacuum’—25 Years After Tiananmen Square

‘The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited’

July 13, 2014

Communist regimes have long specialized in committing enormous resources and legions of secret police stooges to the airbrushing of their own histories. Persons—both living and dead—become non-persons, past events become events that never happened, certain subjects become unmentionable in any public forums and sometimes even in private conversation.

This brand of enforced amnesia becomes necessary with these regimes for the simple reason that they are far more terrified of their own populations than the threats from the outside world that they are constantly handwringing about. Forbidding their people to remember what has been re-written out of the history books is always about making sure that stability is maintained and that the image of the ruling order is of one that has done no wrong in the history of is existence.

The poster child for this kind of "officially approved" version of past events is the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) suppression of any remembrance or references to the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre. To this day, there remain no exact accounts of the number of those killed in Beijing, as well as in other cities where demonstrations broke out after news of what had transpired in the capital became known.

There is an equal lack of any official records of the massive waves of arrests of individuals linked to the uprising after Tiananmen had been cleared of demonstrators. No official recounting of how many of those were tortured, killed or died due to their treatment while in captivity or confined to house arrest for the remainder of their lives. Even the true identity of the one iconic figure from the aftermath of the massacre—the individual who stood blocking a column of tanks and was ready to be crushed to a pulp on television screens around the world and known still today only as "Tank Man"—remains a mystery.

What is known and what remains unknown, unspoken, and unrevealed about those events of 25 years ago are brilliantly—and at times heartbreakingly—detailed in Louisa Lim’s The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited. Lim has painstakingly tracked down and interviewed an entire cast of the characters that make up the tragedy that was the brutal suppression of the anti-corruption and pro-democracy movement that occupied the center of the PRC capital for seven weeks during 1989.

These subjects run the gambit from the actual protest movement leaders and where they are today—some of whom still live in exile abroad—mothers of the victims shot by People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops sent to clear the square (some of whom had only gone outside to take photographs and had no role in uprising), Chinese intellectuals and dissidents working to keep the memory of what happened from being completely erased, and even Bao Tong, a senior Chinese Communist Party (CPC) official who in 1989 had been the secretary to the Politburo Standing Committee. Bao and his boss, Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, were both removed by the then-penultimate leader, Deng Xiaoping, and saw their careers come to an abrupt end as a result of Zhao’s resistance against using the PLA to dislodge the protestors in the square.

Among others, this book has three important messages about the modern-day PRC.

One is that the aftermath of Tiananmen has not only had a major impact on shaping the PRC of today, but taking the path of brutal violence and then suppressing all subsequent references to that decision has only succeeding in exacerbating all of the societal ills that the protestors in the square were demanding be addressed at the time. A quarter of a century later, the portrait of what was wrong with the PRC then now looks like the famous fictional Picture of Dorian Gray.

Wu’er Kaixi, one of the student protest leaders who has lived in exile in the Republic of China on Taiwan and the US since 1989, was interviewed for the book and captured the overall scale of the dilemmas that now confront the PRC leadership:

Yet the political causes that the students wrote about in their hunger-strike declaration—"widespread illegal business dealings by corrupt officials; the dominance of abusive power, the corruption of bureaucrats; the fleeing of a large number of good people to other countries; and the deterioration of law and order"—remain not merely unresolved but worse than in 1989. The corruption cases that make the headlines today feature billions of dollars rather than millions. A campaign against rumor-mongering has placed new controls on speech and online expression, punishable by prison. Meanwhile, citizens are being arrested for simply trying to protect the rights afforded to them by law."

Bao Tong, a man at the top of the CPC pyramid at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre—a polar opposite universe to that of the student leaders like Wu’er—nevertheless today conveys almost the same sentiments in his discussions with Lim. In his view "what happened on the night of June 4th is the defining act of modern-day China, from which stem all its major ills, including the rampant corruption, the crippling lack of trust in the government, the widespread morality crisis, and the ascendancy of the security apparatus. The government’s decision to turn arms on its own people sent out a clear message that violence was an acceptable tool."

This segues to the second message that using the force of the state against those demonstrating against it does not intimidate them and send them running away to hide for good. It only means that they will return in larger numbers and with more ambitious demands—a lesson that the previous government in Ukraine failed to take note of until its president, Viktor Yanukovych, had to flee the country this past February after his security services shot dead dozens of demonstrators in the center of the capital Kiev in cold blood.

"Mass incidents," which is the PRC government’s long-standing euphemism for large protests against local, regional, and sometimes even national targets of dissatisfaction, numbered only 10,000 per year in 1994. A decade later in 2004 this figure stood at 74,000. The next year in 2005, they were up to 87,000. In 2010, the last year for which any numbers can be distilled from government reporting, which has become less and less transparent about the level of these protests, the tally had ballooned to 180,000. Meaning that in today’s "harmonious society" that the PRC is officially touted to be, there is a pipe-throwing, brick-heaving, Molotov cocktail dustup with the local gendarmerie somewhere on an average of once every three minutes.

A third lesson is that the PRC is second today to no nation in its massive, ever-expanding security apparatus, and is never hesitant to use it in the most heavy-handed manner possible. Aged, semi-infirmed mothers demanding year after year that the deaths of their children be officially acknowledged and atoned for by the PRC government are shadowed and intimidated by an army of state security agents. Sometimes they have even been forbidden to leave their homes on the occasion of the June 4 anniversary of Tiananmen.

One mother, Zhang Xianling, offers a mocking but realistic assessment of the increasingly volatile hold that the Communist regime in Beijing has on its people. "Such a great and glorious and correct party is afraid of a little old lady. It shows how powerful we are, this group of old people, because we represent righteousness. They represent evil. So they’re afraid of us. We are not afraid of them."

Lim’s work is one of not only a greatly talented, skilled and determined writer, but also a courageous one who had to be more security-conscious of her surroundings than the now-famous Edward Snowden. She purchased a special computer just to write this book—one that was never connected to the internet and had to be locked in a safe when it was not by her side. She also never discussed the book with her editors while inside of the PRC. This precaution was taken in order to keep in the dark the enormous army of secret police officers in Beijing assigned to make the lives of foreign journalists as difficult as possible.

Lim, who was working for NPR, purposely left the PRC before this book was published in order to avoid the almost inevitable expulsion order that would have been handed to her had she remained there. She may also never again be granted a visa to visit the PRC as a consequence of this work. Another example of how one of the most powerful nations in the world remains terrified of those who would speak truth to power.

Published under: China