Twenty-five years after the Chinese government ordered the army to crack down on student-led protests in Tiananmen Square, Louisa Lim has written The People's Republic of Amnesia, a book that offers new vantage points on one of the crucial turning points in modern Chinese history.
Lim, until recently a Beijing-based correspondent for NPR, interviewed a cast of memorable characters connected to the protests, including an artist who as a young soldier participated in the army crackdown at Tiananmen; a mother whose son was killed during the protests and who has demanded that the government acknowledge and account for his death; and the highest ranking Chinese official who refused to support using violence against the students and has lived under house arrest ever since. (Related: "Face-Off in Tiananmen Square.")
Lim, originally from the United Kingdom, graduated from Leeds University with a degree in modern Chinese studies. In 1994, fresh from the university, she took a job as a translator in Beijing. A year later she moved to Hong Kong for a job as a journalist and eventually joined the BBC. In 2006, she opened NPR's Shanghai bureau and three years later moved over to Beijing, where she was based until recently.
National Geographic spoke with Lim about her first work experience in China, how China views the Tiananmen protests a quarter century on, and the likelihood that the publication of this book means she won't be able to return.
Tell me about your first working experience in China.
After I finished my degree at Leeds University, I went to China in 1994 and worked for a state-run publishing company. For a year I was part of the propaganda machine, working as an editor and translator.
I was there when they decided to try to make state-run publishing companies earn money. One day I went to work, and there was a new work-unit leader. Everybody was told from now on we get to choose what we work on, and you can bring in projects that make money.
My boss was quite smart and figured out how to game the system. He contracted me out without telling me. Suddenly I found that I was translating the laws of the People's Republic of China into English. I think it was the law of financial tools and instruments, which is all about checks and money orders. And it was not for our publishing company. It was for someone else. He was managing to make quite a lot of money from this, probably, while I was completely terrified. I kept thinking there could be huge legal ramifications if I get it wrong.
Do you remember your impressions when you first heard about Tiananmen in 1989?
I was in high school in the United Kingdom. I was watching very closely but from afar.
When I started studying in Beijing in 1991, it was still the immediate post-Tiananmen era. Very few Chinese students wanted to be friends with us foreign students. People didn't want to talk with us. There was still a lot of residual fear. At that time it felt like something you couldn't talk about in public.
By the time I left at the end of the year, I had made friends. They would talk about Tiananmen and tell me what they had seen. I knew a lot of people who had been there. It was very important for me to see how scared people had been to broach the subject. And then, when you did finally broach the subject, how much had been unsaid for all those months and months before they felt confident enough in us to tell us their stories.
Was that experience, hearing those raw stories back then, where the seeds for this book were planted?
To be honest, the publisher came to me and said, We are really interested in a book on the 25th anniversary. Would you be interested in doing it? My instinctive reaction was to think, No! It's such a sensitive issue. It's almost radioactive. I immediately thought, There will be all kinds of consequences for whoever writes this. I wouldn't want that to be me.
But it kept nagging at me that there were a lot of books written in the immediate post-Tiananmen era. Since then there hasn't been much written from within China, looking at Tiananmen's legacy. It really began to bother me that everyone was thinking as I was—"I'm not going to be the one who writes this book." In the end, I decided that it was a book that should be written and that I would write it.
Did you weigh the likelihood that after the book came out you would never be allowed to return to China?
It was a very hard decision to make, but in a way it was very liberating. Once I decided that I was going to write the book, even if it meant not getting another visa, I didn't have to weigh for myself whether I should say this or I should say that.
I think the bigger concern was what the consequences would be for the people who talked to me. Could I do anything to protect them? Would I be putting people in danger? But when I went to talk to people, I found that they wanted their stories to be told. But it is still a huge worry, especially when you see the kinds of roundups, the kinds of detentions that have happened in the last few weeks. People are being punished for publicly remembering what happened in 1989.
I did change the names of some of the minor characters. But there was really no way to disguise some of the others—their experiences were so unique. It was really a question of gaining their consent. Many of these people have been through so much that I think when they decided to talk to me they knew they were taking risks. But they decided this was a risk worth taking. Since they trusted me to tell their story, I had a duty to do it.
I was particularly struck by the account of Chen Guang, who had participated in the crackdown as a young soldier and is now an artist specializing in protest art. It would seem that he would be especially vulnerable to retribution.
I'm sorry to say that he has been detained. He was detained at the beginning of May. He had put on an art performance at the end of April, and he had invited about a dozen friends. It was staged in a large empty space, on the outskirts of Beijing. He had painted years on the wall in red paint, starting with 1989 all the way to 2014. The performance began with the room in darkness, and there was a four-year-old girl shining a torch at the dates. When the lights came up, he used white paint to whitewash the walls. I think it was called "Writing a Book."
It was a very innocuous work, yet he was detained for it. Nobody knows if any charges have been laid against him. I think this shows just how scared the Chinese government is.
Another person in the book, Zhang Xianling, one of the Tiananmen Mothers—a group of relatives of protesters who were killed, who have publicly demanded truth, compensation, and accountability from the government—attended a seminar called June the 4th Commemoration Seminar in Beijing. It was in a private space. Fifteen people—activists, lawyers, professors—came to remember in private. Five of them were detained. She was called in for questioning and then released, but those five have been detained on charges of causing a public disturbance, which is very ironic since they were meeting in a private apartment. But again, these things show that China's leaders are so scared of their own past.
Given the Chinese government's fears and so many recent democratic protests—in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Ukraine, Thailand—do you think that there could be another Tiananmen in China?
If you look at those protest movements from inside China, they look quite different. Chinese propaganda has used these movements to say to people, "Look what happens when you give in to a democratic movement. It leads to chaos and destabilization."
People in China have been very susceptible to that message. Most young people have gone through two decades of patriotic education, which has laid the groundwork for this view to be quite effective.
The mainstream view in China today is that the government in 1989 did what it had to do. Three decades of economic growth shows that China's leaders made the right decision back then. I think a lot of people do believe that, even people who took part in the protests.
Really? Even people who participated in the protests in 1989 and witnessed the crackdown agree with the government's actions in retrospect?
Not all of them, but a lot of people of that generation do believe that. Objectively, their lives have become better. They're much more prosperous than they used to be. And when it comes to issues of personal freedom—we're not talking about dissidents, but everyday people—life has been transformed. You no longer need the government's permission to get married, to have children, to get a passport, to go overseas.
At the same time, the state is facing bigger challenges. The last official figures, which were from a couple of years ago, said that there are 180,000 mass protests in China every year. We're talking about protests over land requisitions, over corruption, over environmental issues. We've seen very big protests against polluting chemical plants. And of course, don't forget ethnic problems in Tibetan areas and most recently with Uighurs. These are the kinds of things that keep China's leaders awake at night. And their instinctual response is repression, which creates this cycle of discontent and more repression.
Could we have another Tiananmen? I don't know. If we did, it would not look the same.
China was such a big part of your student life and your career and now with the book you've burned your bridge to return. How are you dealing with the idea that you may never be able to go back?
It is a transition. I will have to think of the world beyond China to some extent. As I said, I think it is a book that needed to be written, so I wrote it. Any price that I might have to pay will be far less than the price the people that I spoke to for the book have paid in the past and may pay in the future. For me, it may be sad not to go back to China, but it's not the end of the world.
This interview has been edited and condensed.