Louisa Lam's The People's Republic of Amnesia is one of the most chilling books I have read this year. As a Chinese-American, I was vaguely familiar with the events at occurred in Tiananmen Square in 1989, but had never seriously attempted to learn more about the political climate and immense repercussions of June 4th. My parents were both "Overseas Chinese" (华侨), children of the diaspora—my mother grew up in Indonesia and my father grew up in Northern Ireland. Despite the cultural isolation they experienced growing up, both my parents were literate and spoke both Mandarin and Cantonese in addition to the languages they had to learn in their respective education systems. Chinese politics were often discussed at home when I was a child. I remember being confused in 3rd grade because we learned in our social studies lesson that Taiwan was an independent country which countered some of the debates that I had overheard at home. My family visited China every few years while I was growing up, making trips to the Forbidden Palace (故宫), Tiananmen Square (天安门), and The Great Wall of China (萬里長城) in Beijing in addition to visits to Xiamen, Chengdu, and other tourism sites. Mandarin was my first language, but I remained distant in my understanding of what it meant to live in China until I spent a summer there in 2014, teaching English at Tsinghua University in Beijing and Beifang University of Nationalities in Yinchuan with college classmates. Spending time with local students instead of foreign tourists exposed me more directly to the effects of China’s autocracy.
On my most recent trip back in December 2018, I became much more keenly aware of what it means to live under the Chinese government. "The Great Firewall" became more of a significant blockage when I no longer had the convenience and protection of an MIT VPN. Watching CCTV political news coverage with my relatives in Xiamen became a disturbing cycle of propagandic stories. During my trip, I read Evan Osnos's Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, an ambitious book about China's modern culture and ideas of fortune, prosperity, censorship, dissent, and religious exploration. Whereas Osnos provides a compelling sweep of China's current state, Louisa Lim dives into a critical turning point in China's modern history.
Lim's chapters, individually titled Soldier, Staying, Exile, Student, Mother, Patriot, Official, and Chengdu, cover perspectives of individuals she traced down with ties to the June 4th massacre, from the mothers of those killed to officials that held some responsibility. Through these accounts, she covers the events leading up to fateful day and follows the consequences of government action post-1989. I was impressed with Lim's ability to weave together narratives, as well as her ability to bounce between past and present while maintaining clear connections between ideas. The declaration of martial law and the use of military force on student protestors is incomprehensible, but I was most disturbed by how the massacre (or "incident", as China likes to call it) has been systematically wiped from national memory and the way news of other protests and crackdowns at the time were muted completely.
The most emotionally taxing chapter for me was the last—Chengdu—in which Lim uncovers a killing in Tianfu Square, Chengu immediately after the Tiananmen protests. Estimates of the exact death toll vary, with figures between 10-300 being listed by various sources for the several days after June 4. Westerners hid in Jinjiang Hotel, where the U.S. consul Jan de Wilde was based. There, some of them witnessed security forces rounding up protestors in the hotel courtyard. A witness described the scene: "She watched about 25 people kneeling in the courtyard, their heads bent toward the ground and their hands tied behind their backs. They were pushed face first into the group, and then the guards walked around them for more than an hour. Finally, an order was given. At this point, 'men with black trousers and white shirts went around and smashed the heads to the ground with iron rods.'" An Australian named Jean Brick was told by a local that 40-70 people were beaten to death the day before. Another witness, Kim Nygaard, saw the bodies being tossed into the back of a truck like "garbage" or “sandbags”. Four other witnesses confirmed the description, even though most of them were not aware that any other witnesses were present at the scene. They described between 25-100 lifeless bodies being thrown into the trucks and taken away. While some of the foreign witnesses attempted to report the incident to the press after leaving China, the reports were impossible to confirm, especially since China had wiped the act from official memory. A mother, Tang Deying, attempted to hold the government responsible for her 17 year-old son's death, but was paid $8,700 USD to keep quiet. The government never accepted her claim but pays retired soldiers to follow her around during the anniversary of the crackdown to keep her from speaking out. Before the publication of Lim's book, there was no journalistic record of this systematic killing of young protestors. Even though the June 4th event is heavily censored in China, a memory of it remains in foreign minds. For the victims of Chengdu, however, it seems there is little to no recognition at all.
The People's Republic of Amnesia was a difficult book to read, and for that reason, one I find incredibly important. Both sides of my family left China well before these events took place, but I still feel a distinct responsibility to understand the history of my cultural ancestry. China's increasing global power makes understanding its system of political control all the more relevant. Hong Kong is currently fighting against Beijing's slow encroachment on its autonomy, a battle that will drastically affect the lives of Hong Kong's seven million. On Sunday, a million of Hong Kong's residents showed up to protest a proposed extradition bill that would allow suspected criminals to face trial in mainland China. It was the largest protest since the city's protest of Tiananmen in 1989, and the efficacy of protesting and Hong Kong’s future remains uncertain. In writing this, I was reminded of a quote by Timothy Snyder from On Tyranny:
"History allows us to see patterns and make judgments. it sketches for us the structures within which we can seek freedom. It reveals moments, each of them different, none entirely unique. To understand one moment is to see the possibility of being the co-creator of another. History permits us to be responsible: not for everything, but for something."
As an American citizen, it is easy to blissfully ignore the concerns of a country across the world, but I wonder often…
What does it mean to have a right to speak?
What does it mean to have a right to live?
What does it mean to remember?
How does history—personal, cultural, societal—shape our lives?
How can people with the privilege of freedom show up for those who do not?