The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, by Louisa Lim, OUP USA, RRP£16.99/$24.95, 240 pages
Tiananmen Exiles: Voices of the Struggle for Democracy in China, by Rowena Xiaoqing He, Palgrave Macmillan, RRP£18/$29, 240 pages
Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China, by Evan Osnos, Bodley Head, £20/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, RRP$27, 416 pages
A year ago, Louisa Lim, correspondent in Beijing for the US National Public Radio network, conducted an experiment. She went to four university campuses in the Chinese capital with one of the most iconic photographs of our times, that of the anonymous man in a white shirt and black trousers facing down a line of tanks on Chang’an Avenue in Beijing on June 5 1989, the day after the army moved in to crush the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. She showed the image to 100 students: only 15 identified it correctly. A couple gasped and shied away; “Oh my God!” another cried out in English. “This is a sensitive topic,” said one young man. “This picture maybe is related to a counter-revolutionary incident which was two or three years after my birth in the last century.”
Next week sees the 25th anniversary of the night when, after declaring martial law, the leadership in Beijing under Deng Xiaoping launched its crackdown. Most of those who died – probably several hundred or more – were residents of buildings along the boulevard leading to the square, victims of indiscriminate fire by troops. Citizens along the route to Tiananmen had used peaceful means to block previous attempts to reach the protesters; this time, the commanders were intent on getting to their target.
A quarter of a century on, the suppression by heavy use of force, not only in Beijing but also in other major cities including Shanghai, is cloaked in official silence in the last major state ruled by a Communist party. The protests are classified as counter-revolutionary turmoil instigated by those who aimed to destroy the ruling system and to establish, in Deng’s words, “a totally Western-dependent bourgeois republic” as part of an imperialist plot to bring socialist countries “under the monopoly of international capital and onto the capitalist road”. There will be a vigil in Hong Kong on Wednesday but, on the mainland of China, nobody will mark the anniversary, at least not in public. In the grandiose National History Museum overlooking the square, there is, naturally, no mention of what happened 25 years ago.
That silence has a significance that stretches beyond the events of June 4 1989 – something made plain not only in Lim’s The People’s Republic of Amnesia but in two other new books that examine modern China and its troubled relationship with history, Tiananmen Exiles by Rowena Xiaoqing He and Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos. It raises basic questions about the nature of the regime and about the readiness of people to blot out political and ethical concerns in return for rising living standards.
The International Comparison Program, linked to the World Bank and the UN, said in April that, on a purchasing power parity basis, China’s economy is poised to surpass that of the US, possibly this year. Even if the wealth has been very unevenly distributed, such an advance from the poverty bequeathed by Mao Zedong at his death in 1976 has enabled the leadership, from Deng to President Xi Jinping, to claim that the suppression of the 1989 protests warded off a “turmoil” that would have prevented the march towards ever-increasing wellbeing and global status.
Lim and Osnos both explain well why this argument is generally accepted by people in China today, and how public displays of anger have been channelled into protests against Japan. A 26-year-old graduate student in environmental engineering tells Osnos: “If June Fourth had succeeded China would be worse and worse, not better.” The amnesia about 1989 has underpinned a wider disinclination to have anything to do with politics, while the leadership presents the Party as the only force capable of releasing the nation from semi-feudal backwardness and foreign oppression.
Lim interviews a student protester who opted to stay in China rather than flee abroad and suffered horribly, the ill-treatment during two jail terms leaving him unable to eat solid food. But he is not surprised that his wife, 20 years his junior, and her friends have no interest in his past or in what happened on June 4. This, he says, is “not because it is a politically sensitive topic or because it makes them uncomfortable. It simply does not register.”
Another man she speaks to, Chen Guang, was a soldier who took part in the attack, though when he showed signs of strain he was seconded to take photographs of the event and then to help clean up the square. Now an artist, Chen reflects in his work on the experience of Tiananmen and his “quarter-century of unresolved guilt”. But, since his canvasses cannot be shown in China, his aim of confronting his fellow citizens with the truth about June 4 seems unrealisable – doubly so in the light of his recent detention by Chinese authorities ahead of the anniversary. As Lim asks, “how can he confront people about an event that many no longer remember with art that cannot be shown?”
Lim’s outstanding book skilfully interweaves a wide range of interviews in China with an account of the protests in Beijing and ends with the fullest report to date of the crackdown in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, where dozens of people were beaten to death. Its great merit is the range of people in China to whom the author has spoken, a hazardous enterprise given the acute sensitivity about the events she seeks to explore.
Her subjects range from patriotic youths demonstrating against Japan – “I want to learn to make tanks in order to exterminate the Japanese,” says one – to the extraordinary mothers of victims of June 4, who continue their campaign to uncover the truth against all odds. She interviews the reformist senior official Bao Tong in a McDonald’s overlooking the Military Museum in Beijing. Bao was given a seven-year jail sentence for leaking an “important state secret”, the impending imposition of martial law – which he says he did not know about.
Rowena Xiaoqing He encountered enthusiasm for the 1989 movement at home – “Our country at last has hope,” she recalls her father shouting. After the suppression, she wore a black armband to school, but her teacher advised her to remove it. Nine years later she went into self-imposed exile and now teaches at Harvard. Her book, Tiananmen Exiles, focuses on her own experience and that of three former student leaders who live outside China, Shen Tong, Wang Dan and Yi Danxuan.
Shen, who lives in New York, has given up activism for a business that takes technology to China – he can visit the mainland so long as he stays out of politics. Wang, who had urged the protesters to return to campus just before June 4, was imprisoned twice before being released on “medical parole” and sent to the US; he later gained a PhD at Harvard and he now campaigns for democracy in China. He is not allowed to go home. Yi, an activist in the Guangdong Patriotic Student Federation in southern China in 1989, was also detained and went to the US in 1992 – he was granted permission to visit China just before the 2008 Beijing Olympics but then denied entry to see his father, who had been diagnosed with cancer. All three, as He puts it, are “struggling between sacrificing for an unfinished cause and living an ordinary life”.
Evan Osnos set a very high bar as the New Yorker’s correspondent in China for eight years up to 2013, and in Age of Ambition he provides a fluent, cohesive view of the country that goes to the heart of the conflict between Party control and the rise of the individual. He quotes the First Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s motto 22 centuries ago – “Keep the Masses Ignorant and They Will Follow” – and homes in on the Central Propaganda Department (its English title uses Publicity as the second word), which seeks to channel opinion in regime-supporting directions with sophisticated manipulation techniques.
Though the authorities are swift to clamp down on anybody who seeks to organise dissent, Chinese society has become immeasurably freer on an individual basis than in the early decades of Communist rule. People enjoy a sometimes somewhat anarchic liberty. This makes control of the kind the Party prizes hard to impose. Despite Xi’s “China Dream” of national rejuvenation, there is, as Osnos notes, no “central melody”. Everybody interprets the dream in their own way, often in terms far removed from the leadership’s vaulting ambitions. As our high-speed train arrived at Nanjing station last week, my Chinese companion remarked, “There, that’s my China dream, trains running on time”, while another acquaintance looked at the polluted sky in Beijing and noted, “High PM2.5 rating, that’s definitely not my China dream.”
China’s leaders are aware of the challenges they face. While Xi is ambitious for global respect, reality induces officials to play down the vision of their country ruling the world through a combination of its ancient civilisation and economic growth. At the important Communist Party Plenum last November, they acknowledged the scale of what needs to be done to reform the economy and deal with social concerns, notably over air, water and soil pollution and food safety. But their task is undermined by a daunting trust deficit – “only believe something when the government denies it”, as the saying goes.
As Lim writes, forgetting has become a survival mechanism – and forgetting June 4 goes hand-in-hand with accepting the official version of history in which China’s decline between 1840 and 1949 was the fault of foreign imperialists, in which Communists did all the fighting against the Japanese, in which the Great Leap Forward and famine that killed more than 40m are passed over, and in which Mao is “70 per cent good, 30 per cent bad” (the 30 per cent representing the Cultural Revolution, which showed the dangers of relaxing control).
Whether all of this provides a solid basis for a national narrative must be open to question. Yet the leadership has made it impossible to switch course, even if it wished to, which it does not. Though absolute truth is elusive, it is clear that the accounts set out in these books are “more true” than the official mantra. That will make no difference. “History is always dangerous,” as Bao’s son observed to Lim. So it must be denied or manipulated even if that adds to the vacuum at the heart of a regime in which public questioning equates to subversion and the past is a political weapon.
Jonathan Fenby’s most recent books are ‘Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today’ (Simon & Schuster) and ‘Will China Dominate the 21st Century?’ (Polity)