Review by Jana Koetter
It was a brave decision to write this book. Louisa Lim didn’t talk to anyone about her plans, not even her own family. She kept her notes like a treasure, and wrote the book on a brand new laptop which has never been connected to the internet, says Ms Lim – because she was scared of the Chinese surveillance.
25 years after the brutal crackdown of the students’ protest movement which has become a part of (Western) history as Tiananmen-massacre, the topic is still a taboo in China. The government wants its people to forget what has happened, and unfortunately, it is quite successful with its strategy – China, finally, has become the “People’s Republic of Amnesia”, as Louisa Lim states in the title of her book.
„Memory is dangerous in a country that was built to function on national amnesia.“
In her book, the author breaks the silence and revives the memories of probably the biggest taboo of China. She enlightens the students’ movement of 1989 from various perspectives – the soldier who had to follow the government, the students, their mothers.
For example, there’s Chen Guang, a former soldier who is now an artist obsessed with painting images related to the trauma – even though he knows he will never be allowed to show his artwork in mainland China. „Of course there is guilt“, he admits. „Over a long period of time, you realize that there were many things you could have chosen not to do.“ Or Wu’er Kaixi, the most prominent of the students’ leaders who met Li Peng in the Great Hall of the People in his pajamas, painfully undernourished, and who interrupted China’s Premier harshly – he lives in exile today. There are the Tiananmen Mothers, the highest-ranking official Bao Tong, today’s Beijing students.
Ms Lim talked to all of them. She and her protagonists can’t answer all of the open questions regarding Tiananmen 1989; many of them will probably remain unanswered forever. But the author succeeds in painting a diverse and deeply emotional picture of what happened in this summer 1989 in Beijing.
That she is talking out of her own perspective from time to time, adds a personal touch to the book. Because „People’s Republic of Amnesia“ is not only a scientific work, but it is Ms Lim’s search for information, it is her long journey of research on which she takes the reader with her. She tells how she met her interviewees, where the appointments took place, how she felt during the talks – for example, when she met the former student Zhang Ming who continues his very own hunger strike by not eating solid food, but only milk, and she suddenly felt she was hungry. Or, on another occasion: „To find out more, I dug up an old copy of an Asia Watch report detailing the treatment of those 11 prisoners at Lingyuan. As I read the account, I felt a low pulse of shame at my attempts to excavate those long-buried memories.”
The last chapter “Chengdu” deserves special credit. Because it wasn’t only in Beijing that students were fighting for a better China. Wuhan, Chengdu – in many more cities there were smaller versions of Tiananmen. Some say it was in up to 80 cities in the whole country. With previously unreleased pictures and sources, Ms Lim reconstructs on the example of Chengdu how those movements took place. This way, she does not only focus on Beijing, but remembers all the others “Tiananmens” that took place in 1989.
No-one knows which consequences the publishing of this book will have for Louisa Lim – or if it does have any consequences at all. However, it was worth the risk. Because Ms Lim takes her readers as close to Tiananmen as no other author did before. She paints a deeply intense, very touching picture of the democratic movement, its brutal end and consequences that will also help to understand contemporary China in a better way.
Louisa Lim: „The People’s Republic of Amnesia. Tiananmen revisited”, 18,95 Euro, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-934770-4.
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