Yifu Dong reviews Louisa Lim’s People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited.

If George Orwell were still alive, maybe he would have regretted naming his book 1984 instead of 1989. But as Orwell noted in 1984, the year would not have mattered, for no one in Oceania remembered the date anymore. Likewise, very few in China care to remember about the fateful date of June 4, 1989.

Yet, somehow, I learned. Having spent a year of elementary school in the US, I had come to learn more about the events of 1989 than most of my peers at home. I vividly recall watching a documentary film called “The Gate of Heavenly Peace,” borrowed from the Harvard-Yenching Library, at a lunch party with some Harvard graduate students from China. I, 11 at the time, watched with wide-eyed bewilderment as the scenes unfolded, while the older and wiser Harvard students seemed equally baffled. Later, in my American class, my teacher even asked me to explain the emblematic Tank Man photo to my class. But before leaving the US, my mother reminded me to forget about all the forbidden knowledge I had accidentally acquired and not to talk “nonsense” after returning home.

Last year, when the same Tank Man photo was shown to 100 students in four of Beijing’s elite colleges active in the 1989 student movement, only 15 of them identified it correctly. Holding this picture and conducting this survey was Louisa Lim, author of People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited. Lim, courageous and insightful, invites readers to revisit the events of 1989 in their own modern setting.

The first seven chapters of the book feature profiles of people who participated in or witnessed the events as well as young “amnesiacs” who are largely ignorant of the past. The last chapter,Chengdu, describes the often-neglected 1989 protests in the southwestern metropolis. Lim uses State Department cables and interviews with eyewitnesses to reconstruct a more complete picture of the events in Chengdu, calling to attention incidents outside of Beijing in the eventful spring of 1989. Scholars had already noted the nationwide nature of the unrest, though a complete volume encompassing the experiences of all parts of China has yet to be written.

The main goal of The People’s Republic of Amnesia is by no means a simple documentary of stories and profiles. Lim breaks free from the commonplace discussion of history and its possible alternatives. Instead, the author sees the events of 1989 as a historical turning point and a springboard for the analysis of still-developing repercussions of that momentous occasion. Along with profile interviews, Lim neatly stitches together well-known vignettes in the news and on the Internet to showcase the legacies of 1989 and analyze the problematic aspects of contemporary Chinese society.

Among these analyses, “amnesia” is the recurring theme. It is not only a symptom, but also, as Lim suggests, a survival mechanism for many Chinese. Lim captures the amnesia of typical Chinese people, especially the youth, such as the college students in the Tank Man survey. The forgetful youth featured in the book belong to the so-called “post-80’s generation” in China, the group perhaps most inclined to amnesia. Young people of the post-80’s generation usually have parents who were innocent advocates of the Cultural Revolution but were later sent to the countryside and deprived of formal education. A relatively oppressed generation, their parents understood all too well the dangers of politics and developed amnesic mechanisms themselves. In addition to their parents’ influence, the post-80’s generation grew up in an environment where political education tightened after 1989 and the Internet—perhaps the only possible source of free information in China—was still out of reach. Moreover, after graduating from college, many of them have to deal with cutthroat competition, possible unemployment, rising prices and a lack of financial support from their parents. Under such insecure circumstances, the post-80’s generation has adopted amnesia as a defensive response to avoid unnecessary troubles.

What Lim misses is the “post-90’s generation,” who grew up in a relatively more open environment with more access to free information. The outlook for them may be a bit more optimistic than Lim presents. In my high school, there were even students who commemorated the anniversary in early June by going to Tiananmen Square, dressed up in school uniforms and waving small Chinese flags. They also sent postcards of Tiananmen to teachers who had mentioned the truth about the events of 1989 in class, even if only for a brief moment. Many of my peers of the post-90’s generation are actively seeking out the truth, either out of curiosity or out of a sense of justice. Although this ray of hope is far from mainstream at the moment, it may prove significant in the future.

Despite the underrepresentation of the post-90’s generation, Lim explains in great detail why amnesia matters amid the predominant counterarguments that abound in the official narrative of the Communist Party, as well as in the minds of beneficiaries of the current system. One forceful counterargument is voiced by Eric X. Li, a Chinese venture capitalist who wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in February 2012 to argue the superiority of China’s current political system. Li does not seem to show the symptoms of amnesia; he directly confronts the sensitive topic of 1989: “The Chinese nation paid a heavy price for that violent event, but the alternatives would have been far worse.” Most people are psychologically inclined to unconsciously justify existing systems, but Li, as a beneficiary of the system, feels compelled to make his judgment explicit. Similarly, many Chinese people, even including a few of the 15 knowledgeable students who successfully identified the Tank Man photo in Lim’s survey, overtly support the current system. These people readily acknowledge that the country paid a heavy price, but given the progress China has made since 1989, it seems everything was all worth it.

Lim, however, contends that the price is too much to bear. All the success the regime achieved after this dramatic historical turning point, Lim argues, came at the cost of humanity, which matters most to Lim. Humanity can be discussed in the contexts of philosophy and ideology, but for Lim, humanity can be as simple as “Facts are facts. Right is right. Wrong is wrong.” Here, Lim quotes Tang Deying, an elderly woman who tried fighting for an explanation after losing her son in the Chengdu crackdown. Humanity is in peril in the minds of the young people Lim interviews. Humanity seems to persist in the quiet corners of Chinese society where Chen Guang, a soldier-turned-artist who participated in the “clearance” of the Square, and Bao Tong, a top Party official who was detained before the crackdown for his wrong political leanings, struggle with faith as well as despair.

Most people in the West take for granted Lim’s stance on humanity, but in the course of human history, humanity has always coexisted with its counter-ideologies. China’s current counter-ideology cannot be better said than Li’s summary: in China political rights are seen as “privileges to be negotiated based on the needs and conditions of the nation.” In other words, while the West believes that certain political rights are God-given and inalienable, Communist ideology asserts that individual rights can be sacrificed for greater good. Lim’s argument on humanity, though only discussed at the very end, illuminates the entire book and puts forward a firm response to the amnesic counter-ideology. Amid today’s trendy discussions over China’s economy and politics, one should never underestimate the profundity of People’s Republic of Amnesia.

Yifu Dong is a sophomore at Yale University and an associate editor of the magazine. Contact him at yifu.dong@yale.edu.

This article appears in the November 2014 issue of China Hands.