KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Twenty-five years ago today, students and intellectuals went to Beijing's Tiananmen Square to mourn the death of a communist leader who was seen as a reformer. That gathering soon evolved into a mass pro-democracy protest.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Freedom, freedom. We need freedom. We need freedom. We don't need this military council. We are the people. We don't military council.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The protests grew larger and larger as tens of thousands moved into the square, until finally they were crushed by the Chinese army in early June. It's believed hundreds were killed. The international media captured the story of that massacre, but very little of the history that came up in this conversation with our colleague Steve Inskeep.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: This part of the story comes from Louisa Lim, NPR's longtime correspondent in Beijing. She says China's government has done all it can to erase the memory of the uprising, and she set about to reconstruct the events of 1989 in a forthcoming book called "The People's Republic of Amnesia." Her story includes an investigation of demonstrations and repression outside Beijing. This news was hardly covered even at the time. She went to the scene in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu. Today, Chengdu has a population of 14 million.
LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: The sites that were so important in 1989 still remain today. So, there's a statue of Chairman Mao, which is in the main square. And back then, that was where the students staged their hunger strike. Nowadays, you're much more likely to see BMWs and Audis just kind of zooming past the statue. So, the city itself has had a facelift. It looks very different from what it did back then.
INSKEEP: So, you tried to reconstruct what happened, and you write that at the beginning, these protests in the city of Chengdu, which is a city of many millions of people, were kind of small, kind of lame. What were they like, and what happened?
LIM: So, in Chengdu, there was a student movement, just like in Beijing, and it really mirrored that. Students occupied the square in Chengdu. They had their hunger strike. But what was different was that on June the 4th, after the protests in Beijing were put down by army troops, in Chengdu, people came out onto the streets, and they came out onto the streets in protest against the brutality in Beijing. Thousands of people marched to the square with signs saying things like we are not afraid of death. And there was then this inevitable crackdown. Even according to the Chinese government's own accounts, eight people were killed, including two students in Chengdu, and more than 1,800 people were injured there. And I spoke to an American who was teaching English in Chengdu at the time, Dennis Rea, and he described to me how he saw wounded people being ferried out of that square.
DENNIS REA: The members of the public had joined hands to create a safe passageway for people who were constantly carrying in wounded citizens. And we saw them come in, you know, on people's shoulders, draped over bicycles and carts. We were probably in that precise location for about 20 minutes. There was never a time when I don't recall somebody being carried in.
INSKEEP: Hearing this account of it, reading your reconstruction of it, I begin to get a sense of maybe tens of thousands of people on the streets or more at that point. How did the news of the crackdown in Tiananmen Square and Beijing - the story that we know about - affect the story in Chengdu as the days went on?
LIM: The people of Chengdu became evermore enraged by the behavior of the authorities, and the fact that people were being beaten. And they began to target government properties. So they burnt down state-owned markets, started setting fire to police cars. Then they targeted a very large, state-run hotel - the Jinjiang Hotel, which still exists - and that was the site of a second crackdown by the authorities, which was witnessed by quite a large number of foreigners who were saying in that hotel.
INSKEEP: And one of these people that you spoke with was a woman named Kim Nygaard. Who was she and what did she see?
LIM: So, Kim Nygaard is an American, and at the time she was based at one of the universities in Chengdu. She had been sheltering in the hotel at the U.S. consul-general's residence while there were these kind of battles outside, teargas in the streets. And then when she went back to her room afterwards, she was told it was safe. As she looked out of the window into the courtyard, she saw bodies on the ground. At first she thought they were sandbags, and then she saw movement, and she saw how a policeman was tying or wiring the arms of a prisoner together. And as she watched, she was convinced that they were breaking the arms of the protestors. And then she watched as two trucks pulled up.
KIM NYGAARD: They piled bodies into the truck. And we were, like, there's no way you could survive that. Certainly, people on the bottom would have suffocated. You know, they picked them up like sandbags, and they threw them into the back of the truck. They threw them, like garbage.
INSKEEP: Kim Nygaard, a witness, speaking there over Skype. And this is just one of the eyewitness accounts that you've gathered, Louisa Lim. There's another person who describes heads being bashed with iron rods. This was a pretty brutal crackdown in Chengdu.
LIM: It was a very brutal crackdown, and even today, it's difficult to know how many people were targeted. And when I went to Chengdu, the thing that really started me on this quest was meeting one woman, Tang Deying, who lost her son that day. He, she subsequently discovered, was beaten by police and she was actually given a photograph of his corpse which clearly showed that he had been beaten to death. But she, even someone like her, who's campaigned so very long to try and find out exactly what happened, she was unable to tell me whether there were other victims in this way that she knew about. I mean, when I asked her that question, she just looked me straight in the eye, and she said: Even if I knew, I wouldn't tell you. And I think, to me, that was a sign of just how taboo this topic is in China today.
INSKEEP: Why is it so important to the state to keep this story hidden in plain sight, as it were? Because people know that something terrible happened. Why are they so determined to put the lid on the details, if they can?
LIM: Well, people know overseas that something terrible happened in China in 1989. But in China itself, the collective memory is really being lost over time. And I think 25 years ago, I mean, China suppressed its people with bullets and clubs, but now it's using these much more sophisticated tools of control. It's really manipulating history in order to create a national identity and to try to build patriotism. So, I think that's why what happened then is still important today. It gives us a window into what preoccupies the Chinese government. After all, this is a government which really sees the threat within, rather from outside.
INSKEEP: Louisa Lim's new book is called "The People's Republic of Amnesia." She's a correspondent for NPR News, a longtime Beijing correspondent. Thanks very much.