June 4, 1989, remains a day of infamy for the Chinese (Communist) government. The Chinese army opened fire that day on Chinese citizens (workers, residents, and students) just outside of Tiananmen Square for demanding “democracy” (which remained an inchoate concept for the Tiananmen protesters). The events that took place on June 4 were for a long time shrouded in mystery, with Chinese and Western media vying for representational authority, but the truth has slowly surfaced. It is a day that set in motion a collective emigration of political dissidents, intense long-distance criticisms of the Chinese Communist Party, and new modes of writing in the Chinese diaspora.
The writer Paul French has described the protests and their denouement as “the most pivotal moment in modern China’s history”. Both Louisa Lim and Rowena Xiaoqing He justify this claim in their fascinating new books exploring the realities and legacies of these events on their 25th anniversary. In 1989, for the first time in the history of the People’s Republic of China, “people power” threatened to defeat the iron fist of the state. On May 20, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) imposed martial law and truckloads of soldiers began traveling into Beijing, with orders to secure Tiananmen Square. Only a few miles into their mission, however, throngs of civilians hemmed in the lorries, explaining why they were protesting and asking the army to “go home”; a few days later, the troops retreated. “You might have said that our army was big and powerful,” one of the soldiers later told Louisa Lim, “but at that time… we felt very useless.” In order to reassert authority over the capital in early June, the government needed to mobilize armed divisions personally loyal to the country’s veteran leader, Deng Xiaoping.
The People’s Republic of Amnesia by Louisa Lim, a veteran commentator on China, is particularly strong on the horror of 1989 and its aftermath. Her book features an extraordinary array of witnesses: a soldier-turned-artist who observed first hand the planning and implementation of the military crackdown; the parents of victims of the violence; two of the “most wanted” student leaders; a high-ranking CCP official purged for his liberal stance. The book also explores the ways the violence has been so successfully deleted from public consciousness, and the social and political costs of this amnesia.
Tiananmen Exiles by Rowena Xiaoqing He is a portrait of three exiled student leaders (Yi Danxuan, Shen Tong and Wang Dan). Told through interviews, the book is more meditative and more academic than Lim’s book, but similarly illuminating about the psychology of the protest. He’s interlocutors make acute observations on the curious connections between the Communist establishment that educated them, and their rebellion.