The title of this book by NPR’s Beijing correspondent, Louisa Lim, undersells its scope and ambition. Lim does not simply revisit the Tiananmen Square student protests of 1989, although she vividly describes how the events unfolded, beginning in April with student sit-ins and ending with the June massacre by the army, which left hundreds, possibly thousands, of civilians dead. Instead, the real subject of the book is the legacy of Tiananmen over the past 25 years, from a new emphasis on nationalism in the school curriculum, to the economic freedoms citizens are now permitted, to the intense levels of censorship and surveillance that persist. As for the Tiananmen protests themselves, the Chinese Communist Party has managed to reduce the event to a footnote. Younger generations have almost no awareness of what happened, while those who remember have generally learnt to stay silent.
Lim tells this story elegantly, focusing each chapter on an individual character, such as Bao Tong, a senior official who witnessed internal party disputes about the protests, and Chen Guang, a soldier-turned-artist traumatised by the violence. One of the best chapters centres upon Wu’er Kaixi, the charismatic student leader who escaped to Taiwan. Lim captures the poignant situation of political exiles whose lives are inevitably frozen in the past: “They were adored and invincible until suddenly one day, the new exiles realised that the cameras and the adulation were all gone.”