On June 4, 1989, Chinese government forces opened fire on civilian protesters in Tiananmen Square. Death toll estimates range from the hundreds to the thousands, but the details of the massacre remain unclear. The government quickly took control of information surrounding the uprising, and today many in China don’t know – or find it best to forget – what happened. Veteran journalist Louisa Lim joins Kojo to explore this rebellion against a repressive government, and a people’s collective amnesia.


  • Louisa Lim Author, The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited


  • 13:37:43

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIOn June 4, 1989 Chinese government forces opened fire on civilians gathered in Tiananmen Square killing hundreds if not thousands of protestors. For many Americans the photo of a lone man blocking a tank in Beijing is reminiscent of the government crackdown. But only 15 out of 100 college students in China today recognize that iconic photo. Those who speak out can be thrown in jail for years. And with no independent media, many people in China find it easier to simply forget it ever happened.

  • 13:38:13

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhen longtime public radio journalist Louisa Lim first began work on her new book "The People's Republic of Amnesia," she told nobody about her project, not even her own family. She searched out parents who were not allowed to mourn their children and soldiers who participated in the violent recapture of the Chinese capital. Louisa Lim joins us in studio. Welcome. Thank you very much for joining us.

  • 13:38:35

    MS. LOUISA LIMWell, thank you for having me.

  • 13:38:36

    NNAMDILet's go back to that day, June 4, 1989. There had been protests all over the country. What was going on in Beijing that led to the crackdown?

  • 13:38:44

    LIMWell, in Beijing the Chinese government very much wanted to retake control of the square. Remember, by that point, there had been seven weeks of massive, massive protests that started with students first mourning a reformist leader -- excuse me. And then demanding for freedom, democracy, also calling for a crackdown on corruption, less abusive power, less official profiteering.

  • 13:39:18

    LIMAnd this was not just in Beijing but it was all over the country in dozens and dozens of cities. And the Chinese government really wanted to retake control. They wanted to make their point.

  • 13:39:31

    NNAMDIIt's difficult to know the details because government and eyewitness accounts are so different. What do we know happened?

  • 13:39:39

    LIMWell, we know that the government sent in vast quantities of troops. The estimate is 150,000 troops to retake that most important spiritual center of power in Beijing, to retake the square. We also know that most of the deaths did not actually happen in the square itself. They happened as the tanks rolled in on the approach roads leading to the square.

  • 13:40:12

    LIMBut there were many things even 25 years on that we don't know. I mean, we still don't know how many people died that night. The numbers really vary quite a lot. To begin with, the government said less than 300 people had died, but other estimates put the figure far, far higher. But to this day we really don't know the real number.

  • 13:40:34

    NNAMDIOur guest is Louisa Lim. She's the author of "The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Square (sic) Revisited." She's an award-winning journalist who has reported from China for a decade, most recently for NPR. If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Twenty-five years later, what do you think about the Tiananmen Square protests? Call us with your questions or comments, 800-433-8850.

  • 13:40:58

    NNAMDILouisa, in China, criticizing the government is especially sensitive. And you worked on this book and conducted interviews while living in Beijing. Were you worried about people finding out what you were doing?

  • 13:41:09

    LIMI was worried about the consequences for the people that I talked to because, you know, it's a very difficult area. When you're discussing anything sensitive like Tiananmen Square, it's very difficult to know what's permitted and what isn't, what will get you into trouble and what won't. So I was very careful about what I was doing because I wanted to protect the people who I interviewed and I also wanted to protect the project itself. Once they had decided to speak to me, I felt that it was my duty to make sure that their story was told.

  • 13:41:47

    LIMAnd so I did take all these different kind of precautions so, you know, I never spoke about what I was doing about the book at home. I never spoke about it at the office because I both lived and worked in a diplomatic compound that was widely believed to be bugged. I never spoke about it on the telephone and I never spoke about it in emails. So, you know, the logistics were quite difficult. You know, I'd ring people up and say, I'd like to come and see you. I'm a foreign journalist, but I wouldn't tell them what I was doing until we were face-to-face in the same room.

  • 13:42:21

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones because Ken in Gaithersburg, Md. wants to talk a little bit about the numbers that we mentioned earlier and how little or how much -- how little we know or how much we do not know. Ken, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:42:34

    KENGood afternoon, Ms. Lim. How are you?

  • 13:42:37

    LIMVery well. How are you?

  • 13:42:39

    KENVery good. I actually had access to (unintelligible) and the official total that they circulated amongst themselves was in excess of 3,000. And that's just in the Tiananmen area -- you know, the Beijing area. My question to you is, did you look into the repression and fatalities that occurred in the other cities they were holding demonstrations in favor and in support of the students, as well as the liquidation of military people from Guangjo (sp?) who expressed support for the uprising.

  • 13:43:21

    LIMOh, Ken, that's a really interesting point you made. So Ken said he had access to -- in a secret document saying more than 3,000 people died. And indeed there was a Red Cross study at the time that said -- estimated that 2,600 people had died. And that was -- then the Chinese made the Red Cross withdraw that figure under political pressure. So that's really interesting information.

  • 13:43:48

    LIMAs for other places, I did look at the city of Chengdu in particular because the crackdown that they had in Chengdu was particularly violent and has been almost entirely forgotten. And to me it was really astonishing that something that had been so big could be forgotten. I mean, even the local government itself admitted that people had died in the crackdown in Chengdu. They said eight people died and 1,800 people were injured when people's police came and dispersed protestors.

  • 13:44:24

    LIMBut I tracked down a lot of eyewitnesses who just...

  • 13:44:28

    NNAMDIA number of them in Chengdu were Americans, right?

  • 13:44:31

    LIMThat's right. I mean, there was a U.S. consulate in Chengdu and with diplomatic cables that wrote about this particular incident. So there were quite a lot of sources aside from Chinese sources describing this particularly violent crackdown in Chengdu. And the witnesses who I spoke to, many of whom were Americans, described seeing people being beaten, they believe, to death in front of their very eyes. They believed they had witnessed an atrocity in Chengdu. So I did write about that particular case . And I chose to focus on it because it was quite well documented.

  • 13:45:10

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Ken. You too can call us at 800-433-8850 if you have comments or questions. We're discussing Louisa Lim's book "The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Square (sic) Revisited." You use personal stories to talk about that day, including one from a 17-year-old soldier who helped clear the square. It's easy to think of these guards as sort of heavily armed robots, but many of them were actually pretty scared. How did the government get these men to shoot at and kill their own people?

  • 13:45:41

    LIMYes. The soldier that you're talking about is now an artist. And he was really a very interesting person to speak to because the way he described events was so different. It really gave me a very different window into what had happened. Because he was really a country boy. He was very young. He was 17 years old. And before they were sent to Beijing and while they were in Beijing, the soldiers were kept in confinement really in army barracks and given very, very intense ideological education, almost brainwashing you might say.

  • 13:46:20

    LIMDay after day they were told about the threats to their country and, you know, the enemies outside and how they needed to defend their motherland. But they really had very little idea of what they would have to do. And they -- when they were sent on that night to Tiananmen Square, they were told to disguise themselves as civilians, so to wear civilian clothing and get themselves to the square. But he had been ill so he was sent into the square on a bus. And all the seats had been removed from the bus and it was packed full of weapons and ammunition.

  • 13:47:06

    LIMAnd that was when he realized that this was going to be a massive event. But it was really only when they were standing, waiting to be deployed into the square that they received verbal orders being passed down the line saying, if you run into trouble you can use your gun. But the way he tells it, it was so -- the orders were so indistinct it wasn't clear what constituted trouble. It wasn't clear to them how they should use their guns, whether they should be firing in the air as warning shots. And they were terrified, these young country boys.

  • 13:47:46

    LIMAnd this man, his life really since then has really changed because of the events of that night. Although he did not -- he believes he did not kill anyone he feels very guilty about taking part in this oppression. And a lot of his artwork is connected to that. And this year on the anniversary he did this piece of performance art where he was in an empty studio and the walls were written with dates. He had painted dates starting in 1989 until 2014, on the walls of the studio. And he whitewashed them -- whitewashed the walls. He said, history is like a blank. And for that piece of artwork he was then taken into police custody. And he's only been released in the past few weeks.

  • 13:48:43

    NNAMDII mentioned earlier that today only 15 out of 100 college students in China recognize the iconic photo of a lone man blocking a tank in Beijing. You conducted a survey of sorts to figure this out. Talk about that.

  • 13:48:59

    LIMThat's right. It was a very unscientific survey. I went to four of the biggest universities in Beijing. It was those that have been most instrumental in the student movement. And I went around and I showed students the picture that we now know as tank man taken by the AP photographer. And I asked them if they recognized it. And if they said yes, I would check to see whether they really knew what it was. And I was really surprised at the results.

  • 13:49:31

    LIMI mean, at first I wondered whether I'd be able to tell if people were lying. And the interesting thing was it was really clear to me when people were lying because there was an actual physical reaction to the picture. Those that recognized it would almost shy away from the picture. Some of them gasped. One young man said, oh my god. Well, those students who didn't know what it was, they would lean in and look closer. And there would be this complete blankness, a lack of recognition on their faces. And they would ask me questions like, is that South Korea? One asked me, is that Kosovo?

  • 13:50:11

    NNAMDILet's talk a little bit about the amnesia you write about. How is the government so effective at getting people to either forget or not care what happened?

  • 13:50:22

    LIMWell, it's used a variety of methods over the years. I mean, for young people they're unlikely to learn about it in schools and even in university. If they do learn about it, the information that they learn is actually inaccurate. The textbooks that they learn from have a very short account, only four pages out of 529 pages. But even that account contains what one French academic calls a monumental historical untruth.

  • 13:50:54

    LIMSo some of the information that they're told is untrue. And then the other way that the state controls the information is by punishing people who dare to remember. People like the artist that I spoke about. And, I mean, we really saw that this year, 149 people were detained or placed under house arrest according to one rights group in the run up to the anniversary this year. And it was to stop acts of commemoration. And this year was the first year that people were punished, not just for public acts of commemoration but for private acts, so remembering -- small groups of people remembering behind closed doors.

  • 13:51:44

    LIMBut that -- this year was seen as a crime. And some people who held very small ceremonies were later convicted on charges of creating a public disturbance.

  • 13:51:57

    NNAMDIWhat are the consequences? We talked about the college students who didn't know. We talked about other people who can't talk about it. What are the consequences of forgetting such recent history?

  • 13:52:09

    LIMYes. That's a difficult question to answer. I mean, I think for the young people who don't know about June the 4th, they don't know what happened, for them the cautionary tale provided by June the 4th is also being forgotten. If you don't know about a government crackdown then you can't be worried about that.

  • 13:52:33

    LIMI think for people who were part of it, then it's a slightly different equation. And a lot of older people who were part of it, they believe that June the 4th was really the beginning of a moral crisis. Because these were people who were one day on the streets supporting the students and then suddenly the next day the world had changed. The same people were supporting the government. And so you have a world where values or so fungible that you get all kinds of symptoms of mold decay.

  • 13:53:17

    LIMI mean, you know, this is a world where people who want to make money have sold fake baby powder to parents that kills babies, that they somehow believe that that was okay.

  • 13:53:34

    NNAMDIThose just among some of the consequences, a month after these incidents of government brutality may be one of the reasons people are forgetting is because China has developed a more capitalist economy, enjoyed a massive economic boom. Disposable income's now 20 times higher than they were in 1989. In the book you suggest that this growth was essentially intentional, a reaction to people's discontent. Has more opportunity made people happier with the government?

  • 13:54:03

    LIMWell, for a long time it has worked. The government needed to regain its credibility after Tiananmen. So it did that by economic growth, by offering people prosperity. And I do think that for a long time that was enough for many people. But nowadays we are beginning to see the side effects of that growth with no supervision. You know, we're seeing massive corruption, lots of land seizures, pollution. And all of these issues are creating new problems for the government. The last year for which they had figures was 2010 and that year there were 180,000 protests. So there is a lot of dissatisfaction.

  • 13:54:59

    NNAMDIOnto the telephones again. Steve in Washington, D.C. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:55:05

    STEVEYes. Hi, Louisa and Kojo. Thank you very much. This is Steve. I had the privilege of knowing the late Iris Chang who wrote about "The Rape of Nanking." And this was all very, very controversial in Japan. There were lots of disputes about numbers. And the Chinese people and Chinese government were very dedicated in this case to getting the right story told and to making sure that there were, you know, important counts.

  • 13:55:29

    STEVEAnd I'm just wondering whether that, you know, issue ever came up as you tried to sort of validate what happened in Tiananmen, whether the obvious disparity between, you know, trying to hide what happened in Tiananmen but while wanting to tell the story of Nanking ever came up.

  • 13:55:47

    NNAMDILouisa Lim.

  • 13:55:48

    LIMWell, thank you for your question. And, yes, Iris Chang's book was really a groundbreaking book. I think the different approach that the government has taken to the two incidents really shows how selectively the Chinese government likes to use history. For them the Nanking massacre was something that could be used to build support for the government, you know, to unite people against a common enemy, an external enemy.

  • 13:56:23

    LIMBut Tiananmen is really different because the government tried to claim that there were external enemies, that this was manipulated by hostile forces in the west. But I'm not sure that people really bought that explanation. And for them Tiananmen is -- really it's much easier forgotten than used. So -- and perhaps it's also a symptom of the government's own unease with its own history that it is unable to sort of publically confront what happened.

  • 13:57:03

    LIMYou know, every year the government will say, look at our economy. We're doing so well. This shows the decisions that we made in 1989 were right. But they will never go beyond that because that might mean confronting some very uncomfortable truths.

  • 13:57:19

    NNAMDISteve, thank you very much for your call. We're out of time but you write about a side effect of the government's efforts to make people forget Tiananmen, a new generation of Chinese nationalists. How do they affect China's political climate?

  • 13:57:32

    LIMYes, well, I mean, we are seeing the effect on China's political climate because the young nationalists do come out on the streets and protest. And we saw very big anti-Japanese protests in recent years, which were the biggest protests since 1989 actually. And it's just, again, another sign of how the government uses history, that the protests that are permitted are those that are against an external enemy like Japan.

  • 13:58:01

    NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Louisa Lim is the author of "The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Square (sic) Revisited." She's an award-winning journalist who has reported for China -- from China for a decade, most recently for NPR. Louisa Lim, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:58:16

    LIMThank you.

  • 13:58:17

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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