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The People's Republic of Amnesia: The Legacy of Tiananmen Square [Hardcover]

Louisa Lim
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Book Description

May 13 2014
Despite its emergence from backward isolation into a dynamic world economic power, a quarter-century after the People's Army crushed unarmed protestors - labeled anti-revolutionaries - in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, the defining event of China's modern history remains buried. Memory is dangerous in a country built to function on national amnesia. A single act of public remembrance might expose the frailty of the state's carefully constructed edifice of accepted history, one kept aloft by strict censorship, blatant falsehood, and willful forgetting. Though the consequences of Tiananmen Square are visible everywhere throughout China, what happened there has been consigned to silence.

In The People's Republic of Amnesia, NPR's China correspondent Louisa Lim offers an insider's account of this seminal tragedy, revealing the enormous impact it had on China and the reverberations still felt today. Official hypocrisy and the government's obsession with maintaining stabilityand silence have deepened June 4th's impact on the nation's psyche. Lim interweaves portraits of eight individuals whose lives have been shaped by June 4 - including the two women who started Tiananmen Mothers, one of the first and most prominent grassroots organizations outside the Chinese government's control; a student survivor involved in the protests; a soldier who took part in the suppression; and a high-ranking government administrator who played a role in ordering the tanks into the square. In the process she offers a textured, intimate, and haunting look at the national tragedy and an unhealed wound.

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Outstanding... Its great merit is the range of people in China to whom the author has spoken, a hazardous enterprise given the acute sensitivity about the events she seeks to explore. As Lim writes, forgetting has become a survival mechanism. Jonathan Fenby, Financial Times The book features an extraordinary array of witnesses... [it] explores the way violence has been so successfully deleted from public consciousness, and the social political costs of this amnesia. Julia Lovell, Daily Telegraph Lim presents a sequence of sensitive, skilfully drawn portraits of individuals whose lives were changed by 1989... [This book] enhances our sense of the human costs of suppressing the past. Wall Street Journal Lim tells the story elegantly. David Wolf, Prospect A meticulously reported account ... The author offers a series of meticulously (and often daringly) reported portraits. The Economist As well as being a scrupulously researched book, this is an unusually brave one ... [Lim] has done a terrific job. John Preston, Daily Mail Lim offers the first accessible, English-language account of a story that has remained mostly untold for twenty-five years. Rosie Milne, Asian Books Blog For a country that has long so valued its history and so often turned to it as a guide for the future, the Chinese Communist Party's efforts to erase actual history and replace it with distorted narratives warped by nationalism, has created a dangerous vacuum at the center of modern-day China. With her carefully researched and beautifully reported book, Louisa Lim helps not only restore several important missing pieces of Chinese posterity that were part of the demonstrations in 1989, but also reminds us that a country which loses the ability to remember its own past honestly risks becoming rootless and misguided. Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director, Center on US-China Relations, Asia Society Veteran China correspondent Louisa Lim skillfully weaves the voices that 'clamor against the crime of silence' to recover for our collective memory the most pivotal moment in modern China's history. Paul French, author of Midnight in Peking Louisa Lim peers deep into the conflicted soul of today's China. Twenty-five years after the bloody suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing, the government continues to deploy its technologies of forgetting - censorship of the media, falsification of history, and the amnesiac drug of shallow nationalism - to silence those who dare to remember and deter those who want to inquire. But the truth itself does not change; it only finds new ways to come out. Lim gives eloquent voice to the silenced witnesses, and uncovers the hidden nightmares that trouble China's surface calm. Andrew J. Nathan, coeditor, The Tiananmen Papers A deeply moving book-thoughtful, careful, and courageous. The portraits and stories it contains capture the multi-layered reality of China, as well as reveal the sobering moral compromises the country has made to become an emerging world power, even one hailed as presenting a compelling alternative to Western democracies. Yet grim as these stories and portraits sometimes are, they also provide glimpse of hope, through the tenacity, clarity of conscience, and unflinching zeal of the dissidents, whether in China or in exile, who against all odds yearn for a better tomorrow. Shen Tong, former student activist and author of Almost a Revolution Lim's intimate history of the events of 1989 deepens our understanding of what happened, and touches our hearts with its humanity. Where other writers succumb to describing history in impersonal terms, Lim brings the history to our doorsteps, reminding us that we aren't so different from those who lived and shaped history and tragedy. The People's Republic of Amnesia is a wholly original work of history that will alter how China in 1989 is understood, and felt. Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet NPR's veteran China correspondent Lim shows how the 1989 massacre of student human rights protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square continues to shape the country today ... A forceful reminder that only by dealing with its own past truthfully will China shape a decent future for coming generations. Kirkus Reviews

About the Author

Louisa Lim is the China correspondent for National Public Radio, based in Beijing. She opened the NPR Shanghai bureau in 2006, and previously worked as the BBC correspondent in Beijing.

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5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic Book on Tiananmen June 27 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Fantastic book. It is not a step by step account of Tiananmen, but rather a telling of the people who were there and were most affect by the crack down. Further, the chapter describing the crack down on protestors in Chengdu points out that the uprising was hardly confined to Beijing. Really a must read to better understand what happened that fateful first week of June in 1989.
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5.0 out of 5 stars It's Always 1984 In China June 22 2014
Recently, I re-read "1984" by George Orwell. I was less impressed with the book than when I had initially read it. I noted in my journal:
"Reality simplified, depressing propaganda against propaganda. Low vision of human nature and society." I was thinking of such things as "Hate week", and the relentless fear and subservience of an entire society - except Winston Smith, and Julia, to the overwhelming power of Big Brother. I was also thinking of the way Big Brother simply re-wrote history, depending on the political need at the moment, seemingly at will, without anyone really knowing or caring. I balanced this criticism with the comment that "this vision of human society has been literally true in many places and times, and elements of human nature can be as base as depicted."

Little did I know that I would read Louisa Lim's book and find all that I had read in Orwell's book, and had dismissed as too awful to actually exist, did indeed exist - in modern China. Beneath the veneer of the so-called economic miracle, is a nasty totalitarian state, midway between dictatorship and plutocracy. By the way, I had to look up "plutocracy" to make sure it was the right word. It means rule by a small group of wealthy citizens. Lim makes clear that those at the top of this "egalitarian communist/socialist" society, sock away Billions and Billions. Lim's story is astonishing - history being re-written almost daily, anyone who runs afoul of the orthodoxy of "make money, don't question authority, keep quiet about massive corruption", gets unceremoniously thrown in jail.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.5 out of 5 stars  19 reviews
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Important Book Based on Amazingly Revealing Research June 4 2014
By Robert L. Moore - Published on
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This is an extraordinary book. It tells the story of June Fourth, or, what the international community often calls "the Tiananmen Massacre," through the eyes of various individuals: a student demonstrator, a soldier, the mother of a slain student, and so on. It is a fairly quick read, and very well written.

The most telling and inspiring chapter for me was the one focused on the Tiananmen Mothers, those Chinese women who, having lost a child to the People's Liberation Army's murderous rampage, have formed an organization that continues to press the Chinese government to admit to its wrongdoing and respond to their loss. There are so many touching and revealing details here. A particularly memorable one is the government's having placed a security camera over the spot where Ms. Zhang Xianlling's 19-year-old son was shot by the soldiers. The sole purpose of the camera is to deter her from her custom of revisiting the spot in memory of her murdered son. Additionally, whole platoons of security agents follow Ms. Zhang around every day. Often they don't even know why they are following her. One young female guard, after hearing from Ms. Zhang what the purpose of her assignment really was, walked off her post in disgust. What courage these Tiananmen Mothers have.

The sad part of the story is that the Chinese government's efforts at hiding what happened in 1989 have been fairly successful where the younger generation of Chinese is concerned. Many are completely ignorant about the massacre.

On the other hand, the massive and pervasive efforts that the government undertakes in order to keep its June Fourth massacre concealed from the public is an indication of just how frightened it is of the truth. I wonder what this implies for China's future.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book! May 5 2014
By M. Sarles - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Goes right to the source and interviews people who were there. What's amazing is it appears the author went to China to interview for the book. Which means the government really doesn't care about what these people have to say. And *that* is some hard evidence they've been so successful in eliminating the memory of Tiananmen from the collective conscious, that they don't really care who brings it up anymore. The Chinese government has all but succeeded in wiping it from everyone's minds... at least in China.
21 of 27 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not the place to start your study of what happened on June 4, 1989 June 8 2014
By James Mowry - Published on
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After reading a positive review in the Economist, I bought this book immediately and received it the next day (thanks, Amazon). After 25 years, it is certainly necessary to revisit Tiananmen, and from the book's description, I figured it would do a good job. This is a subject of great interest for me. I was in China on June 4, 1989, an expatriate American just beginning a new job in Shanghai. I stood in the beautiful gardens of the Xing Guo Guest House, now the site of a Radisson Hotel, as word of what had happened in Beijing filtered in from CNN and by telephone. Shanghai was spared the carnage of Beijing, of course, and after decamping to Hong Kong and back to the USA for a couple of months, I returned to Shanghai where my project proceeded--as did life in China in general.

Ms. Lim's book focuses very much on personal stories of those who were either directly involved in the events in Beijing leading up to June 4--students, officials, soldiers, mothers--and their reminiscences are valuable and shed some new light on what happened. They are marred by gaps of memory, however, and by the author's unwillingness to ask the really hard questions, such as about the treatment some of the interviewed people received in prison. Instead, Lim fills in the gaps by citing reports from Amnesty International and other sources. While there is no reason to doubt these, they weaken the narrative.

A far more serious weakness is that when reading these interviews, the reader needs a good knowledge of the chronology of the events leading up to June 4 and all the players involved to appreciate what those who were directly involved are saying. For me, this wasn't an issue, having read Gordon Thomas' Chaos Under Heaven, a painstaking almost minute-by-minute account of the events in Beijing written by a reporter who was there, as well as various other books. I find it ironic that in a book lamenting the amnesia that now persists regarding June 4 that Lim has actually further contributed to that amnesia by failing to fill in enough background information for readers who might be looking to this book for an introduction to what happened 25 years ago. (The book is short and could certainly have spent a few more pages on background. But Lim is a radio reporter, not a historian, and this weakness prevents her from providing the depth of research and perspective that is necessary.)

This book is much more effective in showing how the Chinese government turned to extreme, xenophobic nationalism as a way to distract the students from the corruption and other shortcomings of Communist Party rule. The current mindset of China as perpetual victim, seems to be working quite well, at least in keeping students distracted. And, of course, it isn't just made up. From the Opium Wars to the unequal treaty of 1919 to the Rape of Nanjing to the foreign extraterritorial settlements that lasted until the Communist Revolution, there is much for Chinese to be angry about. Despite the famines, the terror campaigns, and the other egregious errors since 1949, the Communist Party can at least rightfully claim that China has regained its independence and is now an economic power that doesn't have to bow down to the demands of Japan, America, or anyone else.

The nationalist message still hasn't prevented an almost uncountable number of other anti-government protests, however, as newly prosperous Chinese citizens demand better protections against out-of-control local party officials who seize property without adequate compensation, the terrors of pollution, and the lack of the rule of law. There is every chance that at some point these will build into another incident to rival 1989.

Lim also provides additional details about the extent of the demonstrations in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, that results in (probably) dozens of deaths and students and others took to the streets after hearing what happened in Beijing. I think this is probably just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to describing the events elsewhere in China. When I visited Chengdu in 1992, the city block that burned down had already been replaced, in true modern Chinese fashion, by a shopping center.

While focusing on Chinese amnesia, Lim only partially points out the amnesia the rest of the world has practiced about what happened. In their quest to take advantage of the Chinese market, international businesses have even less reason to care about June 4 than do the vast majority of Chinese citizens. There are also a lot of details of Lim's account that show the shortcomings of Western journalists who covered the event and in some cases left out accounts of the violence perpetrated by some extremist students against the police and Army. While this was minuscule in comparison with the violent acts committed by police and soldiers (some of which are well documented in this book), the lack of complete truth in some Western reporting has only provided support for Chinese paranoia.

The other major fault with this book is that it portrays the violence as almost inevitable. The students were disorganized and splintered. Although there were "leaders", no one was really in control and could enforce a decision to leave Tiananmen Square before the evening of June 3/morning of June 4. Deng Xiaoping emerges as the biggest villain here. He was the one who ordered the troops in and was prepared to spill blood. But the book shows that many others, including the students, share the responsibility for what happened.

Finally, I must say that despite its failures, this book is a fast, compelling read. Lim writes clearly and occasionally vividly. For someone looking for a few new grains of information, it is a worthwhile read.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superbly written! June 7 2014
By D. Krajnovich - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
By chance, I was in China as a tourist in 1989 when the Tiananmen massacre occurred (my trip had been scheduled months earlier). Upon returning home, I studied the history and aftermath; attended vigils and protests; heard lectures from escaped dissidents; etc. I did not expect to learn much new in Louisa Lim's book. But since the book got a good mention in The Economist, and it was the 25th anniversary, I decided to buy a copy.

Was I wrong! This is a superb book. I am not a fast reader, but I finished it in one day. I learned new things in every chapter. I was moved to tears by the chapter on the Tiananmen Mothers. There is no greater courage, no greater grief. The chapter on Bao Tong is also remarkable. On a purely technical level, Ms. Lim is an outstanding writer -- in the same class as Iris Chang. She uses a themed chapter format, most chapters concentrating on one or two people whom she personally interviewed. Her book has the added merit of being succinct. I suspect it took her twice the time to write a book half as long as most books on such weighty topics.

If you, like me, think you know all about Tiananmen, this book may surprise you.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 25 years of amnesia? June 26 2014
By H. Rogers - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Surely that borders on Alzheimer's?

This is not a history book, and it does not claim to be one. It is a series of interviews with participants in the 1989 democracy movement and/or their survivors. The stories presented are personal, compelling and damning. Damning of Deng Xiaoping in particular.

To paraphrase the paramount leader: "It doesn't matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it kills those who oppose it ."
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