Louisa Lim is an NPR correspondent and the author of “The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited,” which will be published June 4.
I wrote my book on a brand-new laptop that had never been online. Every night I locked it in a safe in my apartment. I never mentioned the book on the phone or in e-mail, at home or in the office — both located in the same Beijing diplomatic compound, which I assumed was bugged. I took these extreme measures because I was writing about that most taboo of topics in China: the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989, when soldiers opened fire on unarmed civilians on the streets of Beijing, killing hundreds of people, maybe even more than 1,000.
I stuck to my rules doggedly. When I decided to throw out the structure I had outlined in my proposal and take a completely different approach, I waited until I left China months later to tell my patient editor. I didn’t tell any of my colleagues what I was working on in my off-hours. For weeks I didn’t even tell my children — then ages 7 and 5 — for fear they might blurt something out at home. Later on, when they began to ask why I didn’t have time to play, I swore them to secrecy.
They managed to keep their side of the bargain. But I realized the strain this had placed on them only after we left China last summer for a fellowship at the University of Michigan. Then, almost giddy with this sudden freedom to voice her thoughts, my little one would approach strangers on the streets of Ann Arbor to tell them, “My mummy’s writing a book!”
Perhaps these precautions were unnecessary. After all, I was in a privileged position as a journalist with a press card and a foreign passport that offered an exit route none of my interviewees could share.
For them, the decision to speak out was made with the understanding that the risks couldn’t be fully anticipated. At the same time, they believe that silence amounts to collusion with a government seeking to control memories. As one outspoken film professor, Cui Weiping, wrote, if people continue to stay silent, “June 4 will no longer be a crime committed by a small group of people, but one in which we all participated.”
This year the pre-anniversary crackdown has come early, revealing how relevant the events of June 4, 1989, remain to China’s Communist Party 25 years later.
The first round of arrests centered on a group of activists, dissidents and lawyers who held a “June 4 commemoration seminar” at a private home in Beijing on May 3 . Posing for a group photo, their expressions were neither defiant nor celebratory, but solemn — as if they were preparing themselves for what lay ahead. Within days, five of the 15 participants were in criminal detention, accused of “picking quarrels and creating a disturbance.” One veteran journalist, Gao Yu, never even made it to the seminar, having been arrested beforehand on charges of leaking state secrets. Nine others, including Zhang Xianling, who lost her 19-year-old son to an army bullet in 1989 and whom I profile in my book, were detained for questioning, then released. Of the seminar, a state-run newspaper, the Global Times, wrote dismissively, “It is obvious that such an event, which is related to the most sensitive political issue in China, has clearly crossed the red line of law.”
Judging the exact position of that line is almost impossible, since the law remains subservient to ever-shifting political dictates. Artist Chen Guang didn’t expect any trouble when he invited a dozen or so friends to an empty building on the outskirts of Beijing for the staging of a performance-art piece in late April. Chen, whom I also write about in my book, was one of the martial-law troops deployed to clear Tiananmen Square in 1989, and that experience informs his artwork. But this performance was especially innocuous. It opened with a small girl shining a flashlight around a darkened room, illuminating dates painted on the walls ranging from 1989 to 2014. When the lights came on, Chen appeared with a mask muzzling his mouth. He then whitewashed the walls, obliterating the years. For this, he has been detained by police since May 7. No charges have been made public.
As a friend of his told the New York Times, “People want to remember what happened on June 4, but they can’t do it in public spaces. Now apparently you can’t even remember in private.”
Under such strictures, forgetting is the easy option, perhaps even the default choice. As the artist Ai Weiwei wrote on the 20th anniversary of the crackdown, “Lacking the right to remember, we choose to forget.”
After all, to remember what happened is to remember the scope of the protests. There weren’t just thousands of students protesting in Tiananmen Square, but hundreds of thousands of demonstrators from every conceivable occupation paralyzing dozens of cities around China. In the course of my research, I unearthed new details about the violent suppression of protests in the southwestern city of Chengdu, where government accounts admitted that eight people died and 1,800 were injured in three days of chaotic fighting in the streets. Witnesses believe that the death toll was much higher. Remembering those untold stories is dangerous, because how many other untold stories exist in a country of 1.3 billion people?
Remembering the demands of 1989 — the cries for greater democracy and the calls to tackle official corruption, official profiteering and the concentration of power in the hands of a few — is to recognize how they remain unmet. Reporters have tracked down assets worth $2.7 billion controlled by relatives of former premier Wen Jiabao. Yet anti-corruption activists asking government officials to disclose their assets have been jailed on charges of inciting subversion of state power.
The contours of today’s brash, powerful China were shaped by decisions made in the immediate aftermath of the Tiananmen crackdown. It was then that the paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, pushed economic liberalization without any political reforms, a pattern that continues to this day, allowing disposable incomes to increase 1,700 percent since 1989. He put in place a massive patriotic education campaign, which has fostered a generation of young Chinese nationalists. He also laid the groundwork for the ballooning security apparatus, tasked with preventing the spread of protests by monitoring those from whom the public needs protection — such as bereaved mothers who refuse to forget how the state killed their children.
When 76-year-old Zhang goes to the cemetery to mourn her son, dozens of plainclothes policemen monitor her movements. One year she managed to make offerings at the spot where her son, Wang Nan, died on the sidewalk beside the Avenue of Heavenly Peace. The next year she was forbidden to leave her home. To this day, a closed-circuit camera is trained upon that spot, awaiting her return.
China’s leaders are personally vulnerable because they trace their lineage to the winners of the power struggle that cleaved their party in 1989. When the current generation of leaders took power 18 months ago, some optimists hoped that they might be far enough removed from the events of 1989 to initiate a reassessment of what happened. Instead, party leader Xi Jinping’s refusal to repudiate Chairman Mao Zedong effectively rules out any acts of historical reevaluation. The party’s ultimate goal is ensuring its own survival, and it has clearly decided that it needs to keep a lid on discussion about Tiananmen in public, in private and in cyberspace.
China’s online censors are busy scrubbing allusions, no matter how elliptical, to June 4. As the anniversary nears, judging by precedents set in recent years, the list of banned words and terms will grow to include “64,” “today,” “that year,” “in memory of” and even “sensitive word.” History is apparently so dangerous that China’s version of Wikipedia, Baidu Baike, does not have an entry for the entire year of 1989.
Just days ago, I stumbled across “Tiananmen,” written by the British poet James Fenton less than two weeks after the bloody repression. A quarter-century later, his words are still true, perhaps more so even than before.
Is broad and clean
And you can’t tell
Where the dead have been
And you can’t tell
What happened then
And you can’t speak