The Connection Between Power and Memory: A Review of The People’s Republic of Amnesia

This year is the twenty-fifth anniversary of Tiananamen Square and Louisa Lim’s The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisted, shows just how far China has gone to make it disappear from history. Those student led protests in 1989, calling for freedom of press, speech, and leadership accountability, amassed a large following and were eventually quashed through military force.

In China today, those who lived through the massacre are forced into silence, while the younger citizens are often buried in ignorance.

We all might be familiar with phrases like “Never forget” in relation to prisoners of war or “Remember the Alamo” for the famous and devastating battle in Texas. These slogans are more than “Drink Pepsi,” in that they are intended to inspire a sense of identity and moral meaning. This is not to say, however, that the meaning is historically accurate. The Ronald Reagan that inspires the Tea Party is also rarely the Reagan of history.

Memory is a tricky tool. In fact, studies have shown that as we recall memories, we tend to rewrite them. If you want to preserve a memory, one might say, then try to forget it. And yet, when it comes to tragedy like Tiananmen, to forget it is also an injustice. To forget is an enabling of certain power structures, propaganda, and a devaluing of sacrifice.

On June 5, 1989, a lone man forces tanks to halt their advance. "Tank Man" became a symbol of resistance.

On June 5, 1989, a lone man forces tanks to halt their advance. “Tank Man” became a symbol of resistance.

The People’s Republic of Amnesia explores this complicated world of memory in a country which has done its damnedest to force people to forget. Lim recalls an essay in the New York Times which captures the patriotism attached to this amnesia in China. In it, Yan Lianke writes:

It doesn’t matter whether you are a writer, a historian or social scientist. You will be awarded power, fame and money as long as you are willing to see what is allowed to be seen, and look away from what is not allowed to be looked at; as long as you are willing to sing the praises of what needs to be praised and ignore what needs to be blanked out. In other words, amnesia is a state-sponsored sport.

In fact, the iconic “Tank Man” photo has nearly lost all of its meaning with the youth of China whose education is Tiananmen free. Lim tells of an experiment which was “designed to test the limits of Chinese censorship in the Internet age.”

I took the photo of Tank Man to the campuses of four Beijing universities whose students had been instrumental in the 1989 movement: Peking University, Tsinghua University, People’s University, and Beijing Normal University. I was curious to know how many of today’s Internet-savvy students would recognize the photo. The students I spoke to are the crème del la crème, the best-educated students in China, yet the vast majority of them looked at the photo without the slightest flicker of recognition. “Is it in Kosovo?” one astronomy major asked. A student pursuing a Ph.D. in marketing harzarded a guess, “Is it from South Korea?”

When she had finished, only fifteen out of a hundred students correctly identified the picture; two of those did so on a guess and nineteen thought it was a military parade.

The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisted b Louisa Liu.  Oxford University Press, 2014.  264 pages (Hardcover) Source: Brilliant Books Available: Amazon

The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisted by Louisa Lim.
Oxford UP, 2014.
264 pages (Hardcover)
Source: Brilliant Books
Available: Amazon

Louisa Lim, an award winning journalist whose work includes reporting on China for NPR and the BBC, applies this trade to her writing of The People’s Republic of Amnesia. From a former soldier turned protest artist to a brave old woman whose work (as one of the Tiananmen Mothers) to remember her son’s death at Tiananmen has forced the Chinese government to follow her every move, the stories Lim brings the reader are intimate windows into the lives of those who remember.

“The violent suppression of the 1989 movement,” writes Lim, “was not an anomaly.” She points to precedents in 1919, 1926, and 1976. “Thus Chinese history loops endlessly in on itself in a Möbius strip of crushed aspirations, cycling from one generation to the next, propelled by the propensity to embrace amnesia.”

The stories found in these pages demonstrate the amazing lengths to which the Chinese government has gone to strangle not only the freedom of speech, but also the freedom of thought and identity from its people.

“The ‘forgetting’ that has engulfed China,” writes Lim, ” is not just enforced from above; the people themselves have colluded in this amnesia and embraced it. Forgetting is a survival mechanism, almost second nature.” This amnesia is a tragedy, especially for a people whose long, rich history has changed the world. It is fueled by a government whose tactics are a powerful combination of reward and punishment, a point made effectively by Lim.

The People’s Republic of Amnesia is not a history of Tiananmen, so much as it is an insertion into the lives of those touched and wounded by that day in 1989. Through the persistence of those like the Tiananmen Mothers, who seek justice for their children and urge others to join them, it may be possible that “the forgetting” will one day become the remembering.

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