The People's Republic of Amnesia

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In the days and weeks leading up to the first week of June this year, Chinese internet censors were at their busiest, blocking any words or numbers which had any reference to 4 June 1989.

The attempt to wipe any discussion of the anniversary of Tiananmen does at times become surreal. Two years ago the censors tried to block references to the fact that the Shanghai stock exchange had fallen by 64.89 points because it sounded like 4 June 1989.

This year the censors were more vigilant than ever in the run up to the symbolic 25th anniversary of the bloody suppression of the pro-democracy demonstrations.

Many people will remember the seven weeks of daily news of demonstrations and the occupation of Tiananmen Square. In the build up to this year’s anniversary many known dissidents were arrested, put under house arrest or sent out of Beijing. However, it is estimated that 180,000 attended a candlelit vigil in Hong Kong.

A year ago journalist Louisa Lim conducted an experiment. She showed the iconic picture of the man with the shopping bags standing in front of the column of the tanks to 100 Chinese students from four universities.

Only 15 recognised the image of the infamous Tank Man (right). Out of those one student responded: “This picture, maybe, is related to a counter-revolutionary incident which was two or three years after my birth in the last century.”

Despite this attempt to erase history, Lim’s book has managed to reconstruct the events leading to the massacre from the accounts of former student leaders, mothers of students killed and ex party leaders.

A former conscript describes the brutality of life inside the Chinese army. In May 1989, his unit was deployed to defend the capital from “serious upheaval”. They didn’t know that there were thousands on the streets.

On 19 May China’s premier Li Peng declared martial law. The convey of trucks had travelled only a few miles before they were surrounded by people arguing against an attack on the people.

He remembered ordinary people, young and old, blocking the trucks on their way into the square and telling the soldiers what the demonstrations were about. They blocked them for four days.

The army dropped leaflets from helicopters warning soldiers not to believe “rumours”. Soldiers were withdrawn back to barracks where they spent ten days listening to lectures and being told that their job was to protect the capital.

On 3 June the soldiers (dressed as civilians) were ordered to make their way to the Great Hall of People in Tiananmen Square.

They were told that a 25 year old soldier had been murdered by a mob. What they weren’t told was that the soldier had killed four people.

Lim interviewed a 76 year old grandmother who posed so much of a threat that she has up to 40 security services personnel following her to the dentist and the market.

She spoke to Zhang Xialing, one of the Tiananmen mothers. A CCTV camera has been installed where her son was buried after his murder on 4 June, in case she should try to mourn at his grave. As Lim writes, Zhang’s “simple act of memory is deemed a threat to stability.”

Although Beijing was the heart of the struggle and subsequent repression, there were demonstrations across China in 1989. Lim writes about events in Chengdu, a city 1,300 miles from Beijing. Thousands marched and occupied Tianfu, the main city square.

A US student living in the city wrote in a letter home, “All of those students are on strike, and the professors are walking out with them in support. Even workers, newspapers and party units are supporting them; I’ve never seen such popular mobalisation, as many as 1,700 on hunger strike.”

After the clearing of Tiananmen Square, only 51 students remained in Tianfu Square. According to official records, they were removed peacefully by the authorities in less than 30 minutes.

As reports came through of the massacre thousands returned to the streets of Chengdu, carrying mourning wreaths and signs declaring “We are not afraid of death.”

The army was not deployed in Chengdu, but the brutal actions of the police created such hatred that for a while they stopped wearing their uniform in public.

In Chengdu, Lim met elderly tiny landless peasant Tang, who has spent the last 25 years searching for the truth about what happened to her 17 year old son. Every day she goes from the police station to the court seeking justice. She has been beaten and locked up. Some 20 people are employed to watch her.

Lim says that mass movements such as Tiananmen could happen again. Today rapacious land seizures, widespread official corruption and choking environmental problems are creating discontent.

As long as these remain localised the likelihood of a national mass movement is diluted. But over the past few years these isolated protests have grown in size and frequency.

The People’s Republic of Amnesia is an introduction to this historic uprising the Chinese state wants us to forget.