The Ghosts of Tiananmen Square

tags: China, Tiananmen Square

Ian Johnson is a Beijing-based correspondent for The New York Times. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of China, and is writing a book on China’s search for values. 

... Two new books tackle the Tiananmen events from this vantage point [as an act frozen in time, awaiting its true recognition and denouement in some vague future.] One is set in China and is about repressing memory; the other is set abroad and is about keeping it alive. They agree that June 4 was a watershed in contemporary Chinese history, a turning point that ended the idealism and experimentation of the 1980s, and led to the hypercapitalist and hypersensitive China of today.

Neither of the two books claims to be a definitive account of the massacre, or the events leading to it. That history is recounted in Timothy Brook’s Quelling the People: The Military Suppression of the Beijing Democracy Movement, a work by a classically trained historian who turned his powers of analysis and fact-digging on the massacre.2Even though Brook’s book doesn’t include some important works published in the 2000s (especially the memoirs of then Party secretary Zhao Ziyang3 and a compilation of leaked documents known as The Tiananmen Papers), Quelling the People remains the best one-volume history of the events in Beijing. His closing remarks sum up much of what has been subsequently written:

The original events slip deeper and deeper into a forgetfulness into which many, foreigners and Chinese alike, would like to see them disappear, as a new and more profitable relationship to the world economy disciplines the next generation away from worrying about civil rights.4

The two new books take place during this post-Tiananmen era, investigating how Tiananmen has come to shape Chinese society, and how it affected some of its principal participants in exile.

Louisa Lim’s The People’s Republic of Amnesia is brilliantly titled, showing how much of what we take for granted in China today is due to efforts to forget or overcome the massacre. The book is a series of profiles of people who were involved in Tiananmen or were affected by it, some of which appeared as features on National Public Radio, for which she worked as a correspondent in Beijing for several years. This episodic structure has some drawbacks, primarily an absence of a complete background section early on about the massacre—what led up to it, how and why it happened.

But Lim helpfully starts out with a chapter called “Soldier,” which lays out the mechanics of the killing, as told from the perspective of a People’s Liberation Army grunt whose unit was ordered to clear the square. It’s well known that the army bungled clearing the square, first massing troops on the outskirts of town, then only halfheartedly trying to enter Beijing on successive days as crowds of people pleaded with and cajoled the young soldiers not to listen to their commissars’ propaganda and to go back to their barracks. Finally, when the troops were given clear orders to move, they inflicted horrific civilian casualties, which one can interpret—depending on one’s standpoint—as a result of the soldiers’ poor training, their superiors’ crude tactics, or as a deliberate attempt to pacify through terror....

comments powered by Disqus