Tiananmen revisited: A collective amnesia

The discussion was chaired Peter French, an analyst and commentator on Asia. He was joined by: Louisa Lim, a journalist and author of The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited; former BBC journalist and the outgoing Beijing bureau chief of The EconomistJames Miles; and Xiaolu Guo, a Chinese novelist and filmmaker.

Lim, told the audience that despite the 25 years that have since passed, there was still an overwhelming feeling of paranoia, more so on this anniversary than at any other point.

“It’s such a politically sensitive topic – what [Tiananmen] meant inside China, and to the people who stayed behind,” said Lim, who admitted she was so paranoid when writing the book, she never spoke about it on the phone, in emails or in the office.

“I was nervous because this year was an extraordinary year in China – the crackdown in the run-up to the anniversary was more intense than usual. . . . Maybe I was in China too long and had internalised the censorship!”

Miles, who was in the square on 4 May 1989, described the atmosphere on the day:

“It was an extraordinary and electrifying moment. China was on the brink of some major shift in politics.

“The very obvious sweep of history since 1989, is that one thing came to a halt that month – the discussion of political reform, and that hasn’t resumed. As Lim brilliantly describes in her book, it is something little known among the new generation of Chinese and little thought about by many people, but it remains something that gnaws at the heart of the establishment,” he added.

An audience member asked the panel why, with millions of Chinese coming over to western countries to study, for work and for holidays, those people aren’t calling for policy reform. “Have they drunk the kool-aid of economic development?”

Lim suggested that after Tiananmen in 1991 there was a big increase in patriotic eduction in schools: “Some students when they come overseas and hear different versions of their history, they find it hard to believe. Some still believe it is a western conspiracy theory.”

Guo, who was 16 at the time, and whose brother took part in the protests, added:

“Since 1949, China has been internationally isolated and prosecuted by the international community. The government and old generation communist party members have a reactionary attitude against the west.

“The young people’s indifference to politics is actually quite smart, because they know that under the current political system you may as well go with the material dream – that way you may sustain your quality of life.”

French asked the panellists if there was anything in the theory that it is a media conspiracy to report China in a certain way.

“There was that experience in Lharsa, Tibet, when the members of the press corps experienced a backlash from the public inspired by a sense that foreign journalists had deliberately distorted that story,” said Miles.

“It was a sign that there was a change in public mood in China – the upsurge in patriotic pride in the build up to the Olympics, and perpetuated since then by the financial global crisis. The sense of China on the rise.

“This fed into a greater sense of China’s power and prowess globally, and on the other hand, internally a sense of fragility, which was made clear in their response to the [Tiananmen] anniversary. There was a lack of trust in the public. That nationalism hasn’t turned into greater internal confidence. But it does change the way the public see us.”

Catch up with the event here: