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Book review: The China Syndrome

Louisa Lim

Oxford University Press, pbk, £16.99, 240 pages

Both available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350

To those who watched it unfold – the demonstrations across Chinese cities, the sea of protesters' tents in Tiananmen Square, right in front of the portrait of Mao – an overturning of Chinese Communist rule seemed genuinely possible in 1989.

Then, on the night of June 3, the People's Liberation Army turned its guns on the people. A handful of vignettes retain a powerful hold on our memories of this year: the pale, hunger-striking students in the square, their banners demanding "democracy or death"; the grainy video of a white-shirted civilian successfully facing off a tank just south of the Forbidden City on June 5.

The writer Paul French has described the protests and their denouement as "the most pivotal moment in modern China's history". Both Louisa Lim and Rowena Xiaoqing He justify this claim in their fascinating new books exploring the realities and legacies of these events on their 25th anniversary.

In 1989, for the first time in the history of the People's Republic of China, "people power" threatened to defeat the iron fist of the state.

On May 20, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) imposed martial law and truckloads of soldiers began travelling into Beijing, with orders to secure Tiananmen Square. Only a few miles into their mission, however, throngs of civilians hemmed in the lorries, explaining why they were protesting and asking the army to "go home"; a few days later, the troops retreated.

To reassert authority over the capital in early June, the government had to mobilise divisions personally loyal to the country's veteran leader, Deng Xiaoping. Inevitably, the consequences of the crackdown of spring 1989 have transformed the destinies of the student leaders, who have had to live with the consequences of their activism in prison terms and political marginalisation.

But these events have also fundamentally shaped the China of the past two-and-a-half decades. The bloody suppression of dissent led directly to contemporary China's headlong drive for materialism: China's post-1989 leaders accelerated economic reforms, while slamming the door on political liberalisation.

The Chinese state's decision to resort to violence in 1989 was a harsh reminder of the CCP's ruthlessness: that the party's chief concern was the preservation of its power, and that its power came from a gun. Popular fear of state violence and preservation of stability have consequently become two of the defining features of post-Tiananmen Chinese politics.

The People's Republic of Amnesia by Louisa Lim, a veteran commentator on China, is particularly strong on the horror of 1989 and its aftermath. Her book features an extraordinary array of witnesses: a soldier-turned-artist who observed the military crackdown; the parents of victims of the violence; two of the "most wanted" student leaders; and a high-ranking CCP official purged for his liberal stance. All such testimonies would have been difficult to acquire.

The book also explores the ways the violence has been so successfully deleted from public consciousness, and the social and political costs of this amnesia. The process began with a vigorous propaganda campaign blaming the violence of June 3/4 on Western conspiracies against China. It then went on to erase from history any mention of the massacre.

According to Lim, nationalism and cynicism have taken over from the political idealism of the eighties to become the new religions of China. Even young Chinese who have some awareness of what happened in 1989 want to join the Party – membership is seen as a fast-track to wealth.

Rowena Xiaoqing He's Tiananmen Exiles – a portrait of three exiled student leaders (Yi Danxuan, Shen Tong and Wang Dan), told through interviews – is more meditative but is similarly illuminating about the psychology of the protest. He's interlocutors make acute observations on the curious connections between the Communist establishment that educated them, and their rebellion.

Wang Dan, one of the student leaders who attended negotiations with Premier Li Peng at the height of the hunger strike, remembers devouring tales of Communist heroes. "I looked up to [them] ... I wished I could become one of them." "As students," observes Yi Danxuan, "we believed that it was time that we shoulder the responsibility for our nation ... which was what we had been taught."

Both are extremely sad books, recounting the perils of being outspoken in China. All of He's interlocutors have paid a high price. Wang Dan spent seven years in jail and has ended up in exile in the US. In a petty act of vengeance, the Chinese authorities also imprisoned Wang Dan's mother. Depressingly, the exiles have turned out to be the luckiest ones, at least escaping with their lives intact.

Louisa Lim movingly recounts the heartbreaking stories of the "Tiananmen Mothers": a pressure group formed by two mothers, Ding Zilin and Zhang Xianling, who lost sons in the army shooting of June 3/4. Both have gone through unthinkable suffering in the past 25 years. To begin with, both had to struggle against an official news blackout to discover their sons had been killed; and then fight again to discover how it had happened.

In this process, Zhang Xianling later learned that her son had been left by soldiers to bleed to death. Since that moment, Zhang and Ding have been monitored and periodically detained for their efforts to publicise the losses that they and, indeed, many other families suffered.

For all the suffering generated by the protests, few reforms have resulted. Chinese people enjoy greater freedom than they did in the eighties: some 440 million have been lifted out of poverty. Yet these new liberties can be curtailed when the interests of the state are implicated.

One of the chief complaints of the protests was corruption, which had blossomed as China's economy lurched toward reform. Since then, the problem has grown to staggering proportions. In May this year, more than a tonne of cash was found in an official's home.

JULIA LOVELL

Indo Review