The People’s Republic of Amnesia
Louisa Lim Oxford University Press 248pp £16.99
As the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen protests passed this year, the topic continues to be a taboo in China. Even so, former participants, eyewitnesses and others still remember what they are supposed to forget. Their memories undermine the official party line, yet they are in the minority in a country that has undergone a phenomenal economic and social transformation since the early 1990s. Louisa Lim’s book, The People’s Republic of Amnesia, illustrates how since 1989 state-mandated and self-imposed amnesia has become pervasive across the country and common among generations of its citizens. Lim powerfully advocates the urgent need to remember, yet also illustrates that ‘memory is dangerous in a country that was built to function on national amnesia’. Thoughtful and absorbing, the book is an investigative study by a journalist who seeks to uncover some of the politics and contemporary histories of memory in China.
Each chapter takes the reader on a different journey through time and memory. We learn of a young soldier who, because he was deemed unfit to handle a weapon, was given a camera and tasked to record the crackdown that began the night of June 3rd. Portraits of two young student leaders, no. 2 and no. 19 on the government’s ‘most wanted’ list, exemplify the diversity of dissenting student voices, as one stayed in China and suffered imprisonment and maltreatment, while the other escaped into exile. A chapter on the Tiananmen mothers narrates the painful process of fighting an all-pervasive party state in an attempt to find out how and why children perished during the crackdown. Then there is Bao Tong, former secretary to the Politburo Standing Committee and the first high-ranking party member to be arrested in 1989. Subject to continuous police surveillance since his release from prison, he provides erudite, sharp analyses of the protests’ political context. Lim also calls attention to those protests that occurred outside Beijing, in particular in the city of Chengdu in Sichuan province. There, protests had been ongoing throughout May but had ebbed by early June. When they heard of their government’s suppression of the protests in Beijing, people returned to the streets of Chengdu, only to be violently attacked themselves by local police forces. The book thus contributes to a broader historiography of spring 1989 that moves beyond Tiananmen Square and those events that international media recorded in powerful images such as the ‘Tank Man’.
The People’s Republic of Amnesia strongly argues against those who would contend that unprecedented economic prosperity and considerations of domestic stability since the early 1990s explain and perhaps even validate selective memories of what happened in the late spring of 1989. Although the book gives little background information upfront for readers unfamiliar with the basic narrative of events, much of this eventually features in the different chapters. Despite the unnecessarily complicated citation, the book is accessible, fluidly written and offers rich accounts of one of the most complex chapters in contemporary Chinese history.
Jennifer Altehenger is Lecturer in Contemporary Chinese History at King’s College London.