National Press Club

'Tank Man,' Tiananmen Square crackdown erased from Chinese history, NPR correspondent reports at Book Rap

September 1, 2014 | By Mark Krikorian |

Author Louisa Lim discusses her book 'The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited,' at Aug. 28 Book Rap

Author Louisa Lim discusses her book 'The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited,' at Aug. 28 Book Rap

Tank Man.

"Iconic" is an overused word, but it fits the image of a man standing before a column of tanks in Beijing in June 1989. That man, now commonly known as “Tank Man,” has come to represent the protests centered on Tiananmen Square that were brutally suppressed by the Chinese army. The photograph is so widely recognized in the West that it's been referenced in political cartoons, the Simpsons, and even a Chick-fil-A commercial.

And yet the overwhelming majority of young Chinese are completely unfamiliar with it.

This arresting fact is at the core of Louisa Lim's new book, “The People's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited,” which she discussed at a National Press Club Book Rap Aug. 28.

Lim, who has reported from China for the BBC and NPR, said the violent crackdown 25 years ago, on June 4, 1989, against unarmed protesters in central Beijing is not taught in China's schools, no books are available about it and any references to it on the internet are censored. (Not only is any mention of "June 4" flagged, but even clever attempts at evading censorship, like May 35th or April 65th, are prohibited.)

"This has led to a great forgetting," Lim said. The forgetting has been so thorough, she said, that an image of wounded protesters being rushed away from the shooting by their fellows was published in a newspaper just a few years ago in a retrospective of the photojournalist's career because no one at the paper – not even the censor – realized it was sensitive.

Lim said that she was inspired to write the book upon learning that the central Chinese city of Chengdu also experienced a bloody crackdown by authorities in June 1989 – something that had been so thoroughly scrubbed from the collective memory that Lim, despite many years' experience in China, had never heard of it.

Following the trail of forgetting, Lim informally surveyed students from four Beijing universities that had sent many protesters to Tiananmen in 1989 to see how many recognized the Tank Man photo; she found only 15 percent knew what it was.

"Most of the people who looked at the picture were baffled by it," she said. Some insisted it was photoshopped; others thought it was from South Korea or Kosovo. Many sincerely imagined it to be a military parade, there being no other reason they could think of that there would be tanks in central Beijing.

Lim emphasized that the "great forgetting" is a cooperative project, imposed from above by the state but also embraced from below by much of the public. "Those who refuse to forget are punished," Lim said, leading most parents, for eminently practical reasons, to avoid passing on memories of the June 4 events to their children.

Lim quoted a Chinese observer who noted that the crimes of the state have been replaced by the crime of silence. "And that," she said, "is a crime in which everyone is complicit."

Joe Motheral, chairman of the Book and Author Committee opened the event, and Lim was introduced by John Donnelly, chairman of the Freedom of the Press committee.