by Wang Dan, translated from the Chinese by Karl Lund
This year marks the 30th anniversary of China’s “Democracy Movement of 1989” and the subsequent tragedy of June 4th. For this occasion, I would like to recommend former BBC journalist Louisa Lim’s book The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tian’anmen Revisited. The reason is simple: this is a book on the struggle between memory and forgetting, and this is a theme not limited to only the student movement of 30 years ago but one that broadly concerns mankind’s history, progress, and values.
Thirty years is both a very short and a very long time. It is short enough that the people who were around back then still remember it, but also long enough that those who were not alive at the time are already unclear on what took place. And as the years go by, the past becomes ever more distant. This closing of hearts and withering of minds is a deliberate strategy by the dictators, who want to create not only a “collective amnesia” but a “collective anesthesia,” as well, in which people will forget that day of steel, fire, tears, and blood. Not only is the Communist Party unwilling to address the wounds inflicted in that moment of national awakening, they are actively seeking to erase history; not content to merely leave the victims without reparations, they force them to bury their pain ever deeper. This is indisputably a crime against the nation. Do they really think history can be erased merely by burying the evidence? And that by restricting freedom of expression in China the surviving victims will just go away? What we have here is a government of criminals, accountable neither to the people nor the nation.
But I will concede that their strategy has not been without success. Many of those who are good at forgetting, especially mainlanders who live in an environment of restricted news flow and incessant propaganda, genuinely have no recollection of the thunderstorm that once rolled by. Aside from actual amnesia, there is of course also the issue of fear. The monolithic power of the government and ever-present Red Terror coerce the majority of people into keeping silent. But prohibitions written in ink can never restrain facts written in blood—the truth will ultimately become subject to the judgement of history.
Those of us who were there have a responsibility not only to remember the events for ourselves, but also to transmit that memory to others. I am sure this is part of the author’s reason for writing her book. But even more important is the way in which this piece of history reflects on China’s contemporary issues. China is currently facing gargantuan, irresolvable problems—all of which stem from the Tian’anmen assassination of peaceful reform and comprehensive development. These issues include corruption, unemployment, environmental destruction, moral decline, wealth inequality, welfare insecurity, social instability, gangsterization of local governments, police brutality, and much else. The China of today is proof that the students of 30 years ago were correct, that China requires not only economic reform and development but also political reform and development, so that the fruits of progress can be shared among all Chinese people and not just a privileged oligarchy. Economic development must be in the service of building an egalitarian society where people are not at each other’s throats on account of wealth inequality, and where in addition to a high material living standard people also enjoy fundamental political and personal rights. This is the hope and expectation we must have for China. Only a China like this can properly become a linchpin of world peace and prosperity. And that is why we must keep the memory alive today.
Recalling June 4th has an everlasting value.
Whether it appear to ebb or to flow, the democracy movement will, like a powerful train, inevitably follow the railroad of history to the end station of glory. But we must never forget those who gave up their lives along the way.
Reading the author’s descriptions, things come back to me as if they happened only moments ago. As one of those there on the scene, I would like to say a few words to those brothers and sisters who are now in heaven:
“Dear friends, as long as those of us who survived still draw breath, we will never forget you, will never stop seeking justice for you. We also want you to know how much we miss you and those youthful days of struggle.
[As Tsai Chin sings:
However much time might go by, we’ll always be here. Wherever you are, you can rest easy.”
Wang Dan (author) is a democracy advocate and the Founder of Dialogue China. He was a leader of the student-led democracy movement in 1989. Following the June Fourth crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square, he was held in police custody and imprisoned off and on until the Chinese government exiled him to the United States in 1998. Wang taught at National Chengchi University and other schools in Taiwan from 2009 to 2017. He attended Peking University and received a PhD from Harvard University.
Karl Lund (translator) is pursuing a PhD in translation at a major university. [Editors’ note: Karl Lund is a pseudonym.]