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The People's Republic of Amnesia

Tiananmen Revisited

by Louisa Lim

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Twenty five years after Tiananmen Square, NPR correspondent Louisa Lim explores how China was changed by the events of June 4, 1989 — when soldiers shot and killed unarmed civilians in Beijing.

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After People's Armed Police were deployed to clear the square on June 4, pitched battles broke out between police and angry crowds throwing stones. Courtesy photo hide caption

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After 25 Years Of Amnesia, Remembering A Forgotten Tiananmen

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The People's Republic Of Amnesia

Meanwhile, on the other side of the [Jinjiang] hotel [in Chengdu], order was being restored in a brutal fashion after the arrival of the security forces, who rounded up dozens of protesters in the hotel courtyard. One Western visitor, who requested that her name be withheld due to continuing dealings with China, described in e-mails what she had seen from a fifth-floor balcony. She watched about 25 people kneeling in the courtyard, their heads bent toward the ground and their hands tied behind their backs. They were pushed face first to the ground, and then the guards walked around them for more than an hour. Finally, an order was given. At this point, "men with black trousers and white shirts went around and smashed the heads to the ground with iron rods." Physically sickened by this brutality, the witness vomited in the bathroom. Several days later, after fleeing China, she told a Scandinavian newspaper, "They murdered them one by one while the ones remaining pleaded for their lives."

Those sheltered in [U.S. Consul-General Jan] de Wilde's quarters had no idea what was happening on the other side of the hotel. But after de Wilde announced that the authorities had regained control, some caught glimpses of what was happening as they returned to their rooms. They included one young Australian, Jean Brick, who had been studying Chinese in Shanghai, but who had arrived in Chengdu that day, determined to find out what was happening there. As she walked to the hotel from the train station earlier in the day, she was told by angry locals that between 40 and 70 people had been beaten to death the day before, a figure that included policemen killed by the irate crowds.

After returning to her hotel room from de Wilde's quarters, Brick watched the treatment of the detainees, who were being held in a small guard house by the gate. She described what happened in testimony given to Amnesty International, "One by one, protesters were dragged out of the guard house. Soldiers formed a ring round them, linking arms. Several soldiers in the center of the ring then beat the protesters, using clubs. After the beating, the protesters were carried or dragged back inside. It was not possible to ascertain whether protesters were alive or dead." Even a quarter of a century later, when she remembers those scenes, they play out in black and white, with all color leached away. "I was quite traumatized," she told me. "It became like a black and white film in my mind, drained of color. That made it slightly easier to cope with."

She remembers watching policemen hiding in the bushes and behind the plane trees beside the road, then leaping out to seize unwitting passers-by, who were then beaten and returned to the guard house. In the early hours of the morning, she watched as the security forces dragged the bodies of those they had beaten out of the guard house. "None were able to walk, and all were unconscious," Brick told Amnesty International. "I do not know how many people were arrested and beaten as I was not watching continuously and I was also in despair."

When [American teacher] Kim Nygaard returned to her room from the consul's quarters, she saw a strange sight out of the window. Under the yellow lights, sandbags were stacked up in the hotel courtyard. She was wondering what these were for, when she spotted one of the sandbags moving. With a chill of horror, she realized the sandbags were in fact people lying on the ground, their hands behind their backs. Rooted to the spot, she watched the security forces wiring one detainee's arms behind his back. "I remember so well, because I was thinking, 'Oh my god, they're breaking their arms when they're doing that!' This was obviously to totally incapacitate these people," she told me. "It's actually very painful to remember now. It was very, very distressing. You knew that something terrible was happening and you were witnessing it. All that I could think was that I must stay and bear witness." Eventually she was forced to return to her room by a Chinese security guard standing behind her.

But first she watched as two trucks pulled in, and the security forces began to load up the bodies. "They threw them into the truck, they threw them like garbage," Nygaard said. "I don't remember anyone screaming. There was no noise, just the bodies piling on top of each other. There were definitely lifeless bodies. I imagined if anyone were still alive they would not survive in the pile. It was horrifying."

Four other witnesses described exactly the same scene. Jean Brick said the bodies were slung into the trucks "as if they were slabs of meat." The Western tourist on the fifth floor wrote to me, "I was so shocked . . . by the way they threw the people, like sacks of potatoes, into the trucks. I'm not sure that all died by the beating, but many of them for sure. When [your] brain mass is out over the paving, I don't think you can survive." Another witness repeatedly used the word "carcasses" to describe the bodies in the truck, though he was careful to say that he did not see anything to indicate that the detainees were dead. The final witness was point-blank in his assessment, saying, "People who were treated like that would not survive." Their estimates of the number of bodies they saw thrown into the trucks varies between 25 and 100. ...

* * * *

Over the past quarter-century, the events of those seven hot summer weeks across China have become telescoped into one single word: Tiananmen. That shorthand has narrowed the geographic scope of events to the capital, relegating the massive protest movements in dozens of other cities to silence. But Beijing's demonstrations were not the only ones, nor were they the only ones to be suppressed. What happened in 1989 was a nationwide movement, and to allow this to be forgotten is to minimize its scale. The protests in Chengdu were not merely student marches, but part of a genuinely popular movement with support from across the spectrum. The pitched battles and temporary loss of control of the streets in Chengdu show the depth of the nationwide crisis facing the central government. According to the Tiananmen Papers, demonstrations against the brutality of the June 4th killings in Beijing broke out in 63 cities across China with thousands marching in cities including Harbin, Changchun, Shenyang, Jinan, and Hangzhou, in addition to Chengdu.

What happened in Chengdu has not only been forgotten; it has never been fully told. The people of Chengdu were not cowed by the killings in Beijing, but rather incensed by them. However, lacking an independent media to amplify their voices, their short-lived scream of fury became a cry into thin air, drowned out by the ensuing violence meted out by both the state and the protesters themselves. Although Chengdu was the site of some of the most shocking brutality, the witnesses had no one to tell. There was no charismatic protest leader, no Wu'er Kaixi, and while some of those involved did eventually flee into exile, nobody had ever heard of them. The Western witnesses were so traumatized by what they had seen that most were initially purely focused on trying to get out of China as quickly as possible. Safely back in their homelands, many of them gave interviews to the media and contacted rights groups, as Jean Brick, Kim Nygaard, and [Austrian professor] Karl Hutterer had done, but there was so little interest in events outside Beijing that they eventually gave up trying to raise awareness.

The Western media was also complicit in controlling the narrative in convenient ways; what happened outside Beijing was largely overlooked, due to the lack of information and the difficulty of confirming exactly what had happened. Acts of violence carried out by ordinary Chinese against policemen — and soldiers in Beijing — were often downplayed. After all, these did not fit easily into the West's favored narrative of freedom-seeking students versus a repressive state. "I felt like a lone voice in the wilderness," said [American teacher] Dennis Rea, whose memoir about living in Chengdu includes descriptions of the 1989 protests as well as the description of the violent murder of a policeman. "I thought hard about whether or not it was appropriate to include that story in there. I thought that in the end it would be irresponsible of me to write a musical memoir while that was going on, and not relate the account."

My attempt to piece together what happened in Chengdu cannot be anything but incomplete; too much time has passed, too many unknowns remain. The accounts of the protagonists are missing, especially those thousands who had dared to call for change and were then muzzled by violence. One factor ensuring their silence was the official verdict — emphasized in all the government propaganda — that Chengdu's own student movement was serious "political turmoil" on a par with what had happened in Beijing. The insistence on the wrongdoing of the "rioters" stigmatized all who had been present, discouraging Chinese witnesses from reporting what they had seen. At the same time, the focus on the criminality of a small number of "hooligans" gave those who had joined the marches cover to distance themselves from the subsequent rioting, while providing them with a reason to support the government's crackdown.

Despite the passage of the years, the accounts by the foreign eyewitnesses of the brutality in the Jinjiang Hotel courtyard are remarkably consistent. The fact that people who had never met each other corroborate one another's stories, despite having no idea that others saw the same acts of violence, is telling. Time after time, I heard the same tone of shock when interviewees discovered that there had been other witnesses. "What other people saw it?" one man asked me, before admitting that he was convinced he had been the only one.

For Kim Nygaard, hearing that her story had been corroborated by other witnesses was an overwhelming emotional experience. In an e-mail to me, she wrote, "I lived for years disturbed by the fact that we had witnessed a crime and that it seemed no one else knew about it or cared enough or would risk enough to make sure it was told." After being evacuated, she alerted Amnesty International and shared her story and photos with an Italian newspaper. She returned to Chengdu about a month after being evacuated and had desperately tried to find out more details. The atmosphere on the campus was thick with rumors of missing students, but no one dared to speak to her. When I first e-mailed her, she replied, "I have always wondered how long it would take for the truth to come out."

The whole truth may never come out. But what happened in Chengdu was very nearly the perfect case study in first rewriting history, then excising it altogether. The local government in Chengdu was untrammelled by the factors constraining the authorities in Beijing: after all, in Chengdu, there was no foreign footage of crimes committed by the state; the victims were silenced either by force or fear; most of the foreign witnesses removed themselves from the scene almost immediately; and there were few lasting physical reminders, such as the tank treads dappling the access roads to Beijing's Tiananmen Square (though even those too were speedily removed.) In Chengdu, the events largely existed in memory alone, but the party knew all too well that memories are mutable, even the memories of tens of thousands of people.

For a quarter of a century, the 'Technique of Forgetting History' has worked spectacularly well in Chengdu. Those who tried to remember publicly, like [dissident] Tan Zuoren, were silenced by prison. The only thread left dangling was the government's initial attempts to control the narrative by flooding the market with its own accounts of events. Once issued, all that propaganda could not be retracted. That thread, now grasped, unfurls into a very different narrative when viewed in conjunction with those elements that could not be controlled by the Chinese government, such as the eyewitness accounts from foreigners and the diplomatic cables from the U.S. consulate.

Despite all this, we will likely never know how many survivors there were from those 70 or so people who were brutally beaten in that hotel courtyard.

What remains very clear is that, in addition to the deaths Beijing, people died in Chengdu too, and in numbers greater than the government acknowledges. Exactly how many is not clear: In Chengdu, the government said there were eight deaths; U.S. diplomats put the figure between 10 and 30; those watching from their hotel windows believed that dozens, up to a hundred by some accounts, were beaten to death before their eyes. This is just one of the many untold stories of 1989. Here the Chinese government's attempt to rewrite and erase history has been frighteningly successful. In a country the size of China, how many other forgotten victims might there be?

Note: This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.

From The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited by Louisa Lim. Copyright 2014 by Louisa Lim. Excerpted by permission of Oxford University Press.