A RISKY NARRATIVE
Louisa Lim laboured in secret to put Tiananmen Square in perspective, writes
IN her final few months as a long-term China correspondent, journalist Louisa Lim had a secret project. Her children were not aware and her family knew only that she had taken on a task that could have serious long-term consequences. Lim, a British native, had been commissioned to research and write a book to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
The event remains taboo in China. Despite the deaths of hundreds of pro-democracy supporters, most of them brutally gunned down, officially within China it is referred to only as a “political event” involving students in 1989. Internet searches of Tiananmen Square and the June 4 massacre remain banned and it is not mentioned in history books produced in China.
In the lead-up to the 25th anniversary earlier this year, Chinese police detained more than 170 activists, authors, academics and journalists they believed might speak out on the occasion. While hundreds of thousands gathered in Hong Kong to mark the anniversary, in China, at least officially, it never occurred.
For Lim, writing The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited could have had — and may still have — serious consequences.
“The publisher came to me and said, ‘ We would be interested in a book on the legacy of June 4, would you be interested in writing one?’ ” Lim says. “My initial response was, ‘Absolutely not.’ It is still such a politically sensitive topic and I did think from a literary point of view there has been so much written on the subject already, what could I add?
“Then I got to thinking that there had to be more, more of a legacy from within China, from people who took part in the initial event.”
Lim began covertly approaching potential interview subjects and spent hundreds of hours speaking to protest victims, their families and witnesses who still recall the horrors of the violence that simply has been erased from Chinese history.
She knew the potential risks, both personally and as a foreign correspondent, working at the time for US National Public Radio, based in Beijing.
International journalists are closely monitored in China and can face trouble. Secret police often follow journalists, especially when they are suspected of reporting on sensitive topics.
The government, to an extent, retains the upper hand by virtue of its control over the journalists’ visas granted in December each year. It has become an increasingly complex process: a number of correspondents for The New York Times and Bloomberg are not allowed to work from mainland China because of reporting on sensitive topics.
The People’s Republic of Amnesia has not been published in mainland China and can be downloaded only by using overseas internet routers.
“I started to research the subject and wrote it very carefully and secretly, and I didn’t tell anyone,” Lim says. “I didn’t tell my own children. I used a laptop that had never been connected to the internet. I couldn’t put anyone I spoke to in jeopardy given the sensitivity of the topic, so we couldn’t really use email or phone. But once we got past that I realised there were people who wanted to tell us their story.”
A large part of the research was conducted when Lim was overseas and based for a year at the University of Michigan. It was safer for her and her interview subjects. A breakthrough was the mysterious appearance of a 27-page research document written by a former senior Communist Party cadre, titled An Investigation into the June 4th Chengdu Massacre, that was smuggled out of China and delivered to Lim.
She also interviewed members of Tiananmen Mothers, a defiant group that continues to fight for the children killed in the 1989 massacre. It is well known across China but closely guarded by police, with officers stationed outside members’ houses in Beijing.
The People’s Republic of Amnesia outlines dozens of stories from the tenacious mothers who have battled for justice for 25 years.
In Chengdu, where a separate bloody uprising occurred in the days after Tiananmen Square in 1989, Lim met Tang Deying, whose son Zhou Guocong was killed, aged 17, by police as he rode his bike home. He had been caught unwittingly in the riots.
Again, the Chengdu incident has been virtually eliminated from history, but diplomats stationed in the southern city estimate that between 10 and 30 people died in the violence and more than 300 were injured. An Amnesty International investigation put the death toll at close to 300 and estimated up to 10,000 people were executed or imprisoned in relation to the protest.
Lim charts the story of Tang, an octogenarian who, despite her frailty, still fights for her son’s death to be recognised. “As we talked it became clear that she was a double victim, both of the 1989 violence and the fast-paced modernisation reshaping her city,” Lim writes. “She is now a landless farmer whose fields were requisitioned and house demolished to make way for the New Chengdu.
“But the defiant jut of her chin and her flinty eyes showed her a woman not to be underestimated ... for years Tang Deying’s daily routine has been a pilgrimage of hope over experience as she trudges from the police station to the courts, seeking justice for a murder committed a quarter-century ago.”
Lim spoke to Jean Brick, an Australian who had been studying Chinese in Shanghai but travelled to Chengdu after it became known unrest was erupting. In testimony to Amnesty International, Brick said she saw detainees at the Jinjiang Hotel being savagely beaten by police wielding large clubs.
“I was quite traumatised, it became like a black-and-white film in my mind, drained of colour. That made it slightly easier to cope with,” she says.
During her research, Lim regularly met Bao Tong, a former secretary to the Politburo Standing Committee who was detained in the 1989 unrest, in a crowded McDonald’s where they could converse safely.
“There is no question as a journalist that there is a risk in dealing with such a sensitive topic,” she says. “My first concern was always the risk to my interviewees because no one knows the level of risk to them, it can be impossible to judge. In China, you can never know where the line is until you have crossed it. Once people decided to talk, I felt like I had to write the book.”
A quarter-century after the Tiananmen Square and Chengdu massacres, Lim comes to the conclusion that there is the potential in China for another civil uprising, but not driven by the events of 1989. China is undergoing rapid change, yet not everyone in the country is sharing in the benefits of the boom. The income inequality gap is widening, involuntary land seizures are common as part of the unrelenting urbanisation process, and for a large part of the year the country is cloaked in pollution. There is an underlying ripple of ongoing anger and Lim believes this could be a potential trigger for trouble in the future.
“The Communist Party will take extreme measures to avoid unrest, using a hammer to crush a flea,” she writes in the final chapter.
“However the methods it uses slowly chip away at the government’s mandate. Paying off protesters — like Tang Deying, whose son was beaten to death by Chengdu police — puts a price on stability.
“In her case it did not work, yet it did create a market for instability, as well as those who benefit from it, including the ‘hooligans’ paid to watch her.
“In the short run, such stability preservation buys the Communist Party time; in the long term, that time is only borrowed.”