Louisa Lim laboured in se­cret to put Tianan­men Square in per­spec­tive, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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.”

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