Unlocking Forbidden Memories

by Louisa Lim

所有的道路都被封闭            All roadways are blocked
所有的眼泪都被监控            All tears are under surveillance
所有的鲜花都被跟踪            All fresh flowers are shadowed
所有的记忆都被清洗            All memories are purged
所有的墓碑仍是空白            All tombstones are still blank

刘晓波, 六四,一座坟墓 (2002年)

China’s Nobel peace laureate, Liu Xiaobo, who died from cancer in police custody in 2017, wrote these words in 2002 about June Fourth, which he called “a tomb / a turned-desolate-from-forgetting tomb” (一座墳墓/一座被遺忘所荒涼的墳墓). To Liu, who had brokered the students’ final retreat from Tiananmen Square in 1989, June Fourth remained a needle inside his body circling the heart’s periphery, probing its surface (這根針/尋遍了我的身體/常常游弋到心臟的變綠). His annual elegies—written one per year for two decades—served as an ongoing act of contrition. It is the ultimate tragic irony that nowadays those interdictions on memory he described refer not only to those who died in 1989, but also to the author himself. So potent a symbol was Liu Xiaobo’s corpse that his ashes were scattered at sea in a hastily-arranged state-ordained funeral designed to prevent the creation of a pilgrimage site.

Three decades on, the memory of Tiananmen has become more, not less, sensitive.

Public acts of remembrance have long been banned, but the authorities are increasingly punishing private commemorations. In 2014 when fifteen intellectuals gathered at a private residence for a 25th anniversary gathering, five of their number were detained and charged with “causing a public disturbance” within a couple of days. The state’s policing of memory has gone beyond the collective to the individual; even that most intimate of spaces—those few square inches inside one’s own head—must be actively monitored, lest forbidden thoughts might slip into public space and remind others of that which must be forgotten.

Recent punishments meted out for crimes of memory show just how much the Communist Party fears the events of June 4. In 2017, the Sichuanese dissident Chen Yunfei was jailed for four years. His offence had been to visit the grave on the outskirts of Chengdu of Wu Guofeng, a student who died in Beijing in 1989. For this, Chen Yunfei was found guilty on charges of picking quarrels and stirring up trouble. It is a testament to the stringency of state control that so modest a gesture—a private visit to a rural grave that would have passed unnoticed—was seen as worthy of punishment. As the novelist Madeleine Thien writes, “One could say that no one remembers the Tiananmen massacre more faithfully, or with greater attentiveness, than the Chinese government.”

Another thoughtcrime was committed by four men, who in 2016 designed a bottle of alcoholic spirit, baijiu, with a label invoking Tank Man, the young man who stood in front of a tank on the Avenue of Everlasting Peace. For this, they were charged with “incitement to subvert state power.” It is no coincidence that both these cases happened in Chengdu in Sichuan province, where the 1989 killings have been wiped clean from the collective memory.  In today’s China, history is being legislated, with a new law protecting heroes and martyrs that makes it a criminal offence to distort or diminish their deeds.

This act of mental reprogramming by the Chinese Communist Party has been extraordinarily efficient and successful, especially with regards to the events of Chengdu which remained largely untold for a quarter-century. In general, there is a distinction between active complicity—the not-knowing of those who were alive in 1989—and passive ignorance—the non-knowledge of those who have been born since, as the Oxford scholar Margaret Hillenbrand puts it.[i] And yet, despite their sweeping success, the authorities are clearly still alarmed by the potential of any small public act of memory to sully the collective tabula rasa.

When I wrote this book, I took extraordinary precautions. I never spoke about the book at home or at my office in Beijing. I never discussed the book over email or on the telephone. I only told a tiny handful of people what I was doing, and for a long time, I didn’t even tell my own children. I wrote on a laptop that had not been online, which I kept locked in a safe in my bedroom. After I left China, it took me months to be able to talk about June Fourth without lowering my voice. I realised that after a decade in China, I too had internalised the taboo, and the act of breaking that silence made me nauseous.

What I did not realise that in writing this book, I would end up unlocking—or unleashing—those forbidden memories. But in the dozens of talks I have given at universities in the U.S., the U.K., Hong Kong, Germany and Australia, time after time, I have seen that process unfolding before my eyes. In my talks, I show official sources from 1989 such as mainland newspapers, propaganda leaflets and internal reports, as well as photographs and diaries from witnesses. To some members of the audience, seeing these artefacts is their first exposure to knowledge that can no longer be unknown.

At one of my first talks in 2014, a middle-aged Chinese woman stood up to ask a question. She wanted to know whether the student movement had received aid from overseas. Her thin body was visibly shaking and her quiet voice quavered, as she followed that up with a second question that was more like a plea for mercy, “Was anything that we were told back then by the authorities true?” she asked, “Any of it at all?” The choice of active not-knowing that she had made so many years ago had just been forcibly removed.

At a Midwestern university, I noticed the stillness of a young Chinese student who had sat transfixed, listening intently. After I finished talking, she spoke out in front of a room full of American classmates. “I spent eighteen years of my life in China, and I realise now that I know nothing about my own country’s history,” she said.  “I went to the best schools, the most well-regulated schools. And I know nothing about anything.” Her time of non-knowledge was over.

For some witnesses, forgetting was a necessary protective reflex to fend off massive unspoken, unresolved trauma. I met people who as students had protested in Chengdu and witnessed the crackdown, then had barely thought about what had happened again. At a talk at a European university, an elegant Chinese woman described how, until that moment, she had almost forgotten that she had marched in Chengdu, and even gone to a local hospital to witness the casualties of government brutality. “Even though I’m from Chengdu and even though I was there because Tiananmen has been so dominant in people’s memory, my memory of Chengdu kind of faded into the shadows,” she said. For others, the trauma was in their loss of innocence, the crushing disappointment of hopes and dreams destroyed.

Anniversaries allow societies to think out loud about themselves and to grapple with the legacy of historical events. But when memory of public events is suppressed, there can be no accountability, no reflection and no acts of reckoning. For some young Chinese today, non-knowledge is preferable—perhaps even necessary—as an act of self-protection. Their logic is that the government’s decision was clearly correct, and any deviance from that could prove foolhardy, even dangerous. At an Australian university in June 2019, a young woman articulated this view to a packed room. Speaking not with stridency, but with genuine curiosity, she asked, “Why do we have to look back to this time in history? Why do you think it will be helpful to current and nowadays China, especially our young generation? Do you think it could be harmful to what the Chinese government calls the ‘harmonious society?'” Afterwards, another Chinese student came up to ask whether I had considered that even the bare knowledge of June Fourth could be dangerous to “our perfect society.”

The hardest question of all for me to answer was one I was often asked surreptitiously, by young Chinese who would hang around after the end of the talk, waiting for the chance of an unguarded conversation. They would sidle up to the table and ask—so quietly that I could hardly hear—different variations of the same question. In I, there was an unvoiced accusation, for I had pierced their ignorance. What they wanted to know was what they should do with this new knowledge weighing them down. How were they to use it, now they had it? Go, I would tell them, and find out as much as you can. Read everything you can find from as many different sources as you can. Use all the freedoms available to you to become informed. You should make up your own mind about what version of your country’s history you accept. Tell other people about June the Fourth, if you want.  But above all, just remember.

One way forward could be through the example set by Taiwan’s handling of the 228 massacre. One day perhaps, a memorial museum will be built in Tiananmen Square, like the National 228 Memorial Museum in Taipei, and perhaps there will be an annual national day of remembrance like Peace Memorial Day. But Taiwan’s apology took forty-eight years and decades of white terror, followed by another sixteen years before the Museum opened. In the meantime, it is our responsibility to keep those memories alive, and to guard them against Beijing’s intensifying moves to impose narrative control far beyond its borders. It is fitting to end with more from Liu Xiaobo, from his fifteenth elegy for June Fourth:

绝望中                                    In such desperation
记住亡灵                                remembering the departed spirits
是唯一的希望                        is the only hope left

April 2019, Hong Kong

[i] Hillenbrand, M 2017, ‘Remaking Tank Man, in China’, Journal of Visual Culture, vol. 16, no. 2, pp. 127-66.

Louisa Lim is an award-winning journalist and the author of The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited (Oxford University Press, 2014), which was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize. She now works as a Senior Lecturer in Audiovisual Journalism at the University of Melbourne. She reported from China for a decade for NPR and the BBC, and she now co-hosts The Little Red Podcast, which won the News and Current Affairs award at the 2018 Australian Podcast Awards.

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