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Not the place to start your study of what happened on June 4, 1989
on June 8, 2014
After reading a positive review in the Economist, I bought this book immediately and received it the next day (thanks, Amazon). After 25 years, it is certainly necessary to revisit Tiananmen, and from the book's description, I figured it would do a good job. This is a subject of great interest for me. I was in China on June 4, 1989, an expatriate American just beginning a new job in Shanghai. I stood in the beautiful gardens of the Xing Guo Guest House, now the site of a Radisson Hotel, as word of what had happened in Beijing filtered in from CNN and by telephone. Shanghai was spared the carnage of Beijing, of course, and after decamping to Hong Kong and back to the USA for a couple of months, I returned to Shanghai where my project proceeded--as did life in China in general.
Ms. Lim's book focuses very much on personal stories of those who were either directly involved in the events in Beijing leading up to June 4--students, officials, soldiers, mothers--and their reminiscences are valuable and shed some new light on what happened. They are marred by gaps of memory, however, and by the author's unwillingness to ask the really hard questions, such as about the treatment some of the interviewed people received in prison. Instead, Lim fills in the gaps by citing reports from Amnesty International and other sources. While there is no reason to doubt these, they weaken the narrative.
A far more serious weakness is that when reading these interviews, the reader needs a good knowledge of the chronology of the events leading up to June 4 and all the players involved to appreciate what those who were directly involved are saying. For me, this wasn't an issue, having read Gordon Thomas' Chaos Under Heaven, a painstaking almost minute-by-minute account of the events in Beijing written by a reporter who was there, as well as various other books. I find it ironic that in a book lamenting the amnesia that now persists regarding June 4 that Lim has actually further contributed to that amnesia by failing to fill in enough background information for readers who might be looking to this book for an introduction to what happened 25 years ago. (The book is short and could certainly have spent a few more pages on background. But Lim is a radio reporter, not a historian, and this weakness prevents her from providing the depth of research and perspective that is necessary.)
This book is much more effective in showing how the Chinese government turned to extreme, xenophobic nationalism as a way to distract the students from the corruption and other shortcomings of Communist Party rule. The current mindset of China as perpetual victim, seems to be working quite well, at least in keeping students distracted. And, of course, it isn't just made up. From the Opium Wars to the unequal treaty of 1919 to the Rape of Nanjing to the foreign extraterritorial settlements that lasted until the Communist Revolution, there is much for Chinese to be angry about. Despite the famines, the terror campaigns, and the other egregious errors since 1949, the Communist Party can at least rightfully claim that China has regained its independence and is now an economic power that doesn't have to bow down to the demands of Japan, America, or anyone else.
The nationalist message still hasn't prevented an almost uncountable number of other anti-government protests, however, as newly prosperous Chinese citizens demand better protections against out-of-control local party officials who seize property without adequate compensation, the terrors of pollution, and the lack of the rule of law. There is every chance that at some point these will build into another incident to rival 1989.
Lim also provides additional details about the extent of the demonstrations in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, that results in (probably) dozens of deaths and students and others took to the streets after hearing what happened in Beijing. I think this is probably just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to describing the events elsewhere in China. When I visited Chengdu in 1992, the city block that burned down had already been replaced, in true modern Chinese fashion, by a shopping center.
While focusing on Chinese amnesia, Lim only partially points out the amnesia the rest of the world has practiced about what happened. In their quest to take advantage of the Chinese market, international businesses have even less reason to care about June 4 than do the vast majority of Chinese citizens. There are also a lot of details of Lim's account that show the shortcomings of Western journalists who covered the event and in some cases left out accounts of the violence perpetrated by some extremist students against the police and Army. While this was minuscule in comparison with the violent acts committed by police and soldiers (some of which are well documented in this book), the lack of complete truth in some Western reporting has only provided support for Chinese paranoia.
The other major fault with this book is that it portrays the violence as almost inevitable. The students were disorganized and splintered. Although there were "leaders", no one was really in control and could enforce a decision to leave Tiananmen Square before the evening of June 3/morning of June 4. Deng Xiaoping emerges as the biggest villain here. He was the one who ordered the troops in and was prepared to spill blood. But the book shows that many others, including the students, share the responsibility for what happened.
Finally, I must say that despite its failures, this book is a fast, compelling read. Lim writes clearly and occasionally vividly. For someone looking for a few new grains of information, it is a worthwhile read.