It is often said that ignorance is bliss. But what are the consequences when ignorance, encouraged, imposed and enforced by an overly paranoid state apparatus, mixes with the volatile juices of xenophobia and nationalism? According to an engaging and all-too-human new book by journalist Louisa Lim, the results are a widening moral vacuum and loss of humanity — and very likely, a threat of unprecedented proportions to global peace.
Using the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989, as her centerpiece, Lim’s The People’s Republic of Amnesia uses eight interlocking themes to demonstrate that while the policy of amnesia imposed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) following the bloodshed in Beijing has bought it time, such measures can only mean that the vicious circle of repression and corruption that has haunted China since time immemorial will never be broken.
Memory, as Lim argues, is most feared by the CCP, whose legitimacy rests on the twin pillars of economic development (which replaced ideology under Deng Xiaoping, though it seems to be making a comeback under Xi Jinping) and strict controls of the official narrative. The first pillar — double-digit economic growth, splendor, wealth and the pride that stems from such flaunted achievements — furthermore serves to reinforce the second by providing the necessary distractions from the serious ills that threaten China today, including rampant government corruption, land issues, ethnic conflict, and environmental problems.
To do so, the CCP has perfected the art of rewriting history while creating the conditions to ensure that alternative perspectives are ignored or, when necessary, met with the harshest of punishments for those who seek to articulate them. Survival is now a consideration. “In order to exist,” Lim writes, “everything is about following orders from above.” The CCP has succeeded in turning Chinese into “self-regulating citizens.”
Still, even though censorship and surveillance are at all-time highs, the leadership cannot hope to directly control all of China’s 1.3 billion people. Consequently, the CCP has complemented its tactics of repression by adding incentives for forgetting. It has made amnesia a sure ticket to wealth and success. “If you want to move on” in China today, an interviewee tells Lim, “you do have to abandon certain ideals.”
The results have been nothing short of stunning. Although it would be unfair to argue that the Chinese have been completely “brainwashed” (though Lim provides several extraordinary examples of people who genuinely knew nothing about the Tank Man, or the Tiananmen Mothers), the self-censoring that has resulted from the policy of enforced amnesia has without doubt worked to the CCP’s advantage by discouraging inquiry into the past, by making history a dangerous subject. History that doesn’t fit the narrative must be repressed and preferably forgotten, as it would expose the deep flaws within the party, the corruption and unaccountability that engendered the nationwide protests in the weeks prior to June 4, 1989.
The “edifice of accepted history,” meanwhile, is filled with stories of heroism, benevolent leaders, foreign conspiracies, a denigration of Nationalist successes and a virulent emphasis on the unspeakable evils of Japanese expansionism. The little that is said about the June 4 crackdown in the state-sanctioned narrative has PLA forces turning their guns and tanks in self-defense against unruly hooligans who attacked first. Imposed by the state apparatus, this official history serves as a narrative for the present, and for the future.
The CCP wants people to forget Tiananmen, as the incident contains the seeds of long simmering anger, and was the last time that several segments of society across the nation came together to oppose the government. By erasing the atrocity, the regime hopes to ensure that growing discontent (there were as many as 180,000 large protests across China in 2010 alone) is disconnected from the past, without context, and isolated. The party does not want the public to know that the deficiencies are longstanding and systemic. The incentives created by the rampant materialism that now characterizes modern Chinese society, and which the CCP, contradicting its Marxist origins, has encouraged, have also contributed to the isolation of the party’s detractors, since opposing the state risks compromising one’s privileges.
Above all, the party wants people to believe that society’s many problems will be fixed through more economic development, provided that the Chinese give the party enough time (this is yet another form of legitimization, based on the notion that the CCP alone has the ability to do so).
Lim’s account is personal, her narrative free of academic jargon and very much at the human level. We meet parents of students who were killed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in June 1989, whose efforts to obtain a truthful account of what happened to their loved ones has been meet with lies, repression, and detention. In one instance, we learn that a surveillance camera has been installed solely for the purpose of monitoring the exact spot where a young man was shot by the PLA during the crackdown, so as to prevent his mother from visiting the location in subsequent years to mourn her dead son. The harassment and monitoring of dissidents has itself turned into a business; for each target, dozens of individuals (many of them hooligans) are hired by the authorities to track their every move, especially in the weeks leading up to the anniversary of the massacre.
We also meet exiled dissidents, such as Wu’er Kaixi, who now lives, sidelined, in Taiwan, artists who struggle with the past, a former top CCP official who was jailed for siding with the reformist Zhao Ziyang, and young, highly nationalistic students who have been indoctrinated with a patriotic education that does not countenance any alternative version of their country’s history.
Lim also provides what she claims is the first written account of a little known massacre that occurred in Chengdu in the days following the crackdown in Beijing, a harrowing reconstruction of events that also serves to demonstrate the CCP’s ability to erase history altogether.
It is difficult, reading Lim’s book, not to feel sorry for the handful of individuals, many of them of advanced age, who are introduced to us as they strive to keep history — truthful history — alive. Theirs seems like a solitary fight against the currents of hundreds of millions of Chinese who have accepted to swallow the pill of amnesia in exchange for personal gain and the rejuvenation of China. It’s almost impossible not to regard them as objects from the past, voices that are fading into irrelevance.
But in the end, their battle for the truth matters, because “the national identity of this new world power is based on lies,” Lim writes. If this cycle of lies is not broken, if 1.3 billion Chinese are denied access to their past, there will be no hope for political reform in China, as the majority, unable to comprehend that the entire system can only perpetuate cycles of self-inflicted wounds, will simply not call for fundamental change, either because doing so is too dangerous, or because they cannot know that an alternative even exists. Without reform, the noxious mix of amnesia, nationalism and xenophobia, the self-hatred and aggrandizement encouraged by the system, bodes ill for China and world peace, not to mention states like Taiwan, whose continued existence as a democratic nation serves as a reminder, dreaded in Beijing, that alternative pasts and futures do exist.
THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF AMNESIA
By Louisa Lim
248 pages. Oxford University Press, 2014
Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.