Unpacified Forgetting

Twenty-five years after the massacre in Tienanmen Square many thousands of people gathered in remembrance in Hong Kong, and some in Taiwan as well. But in Beijing, according to the BBC, relatives of those killed “were allowed to visit the graves of their loved ones under police guard” and commanded not to speak with reporters. NPR correspondent Louisa Lim, author of the just-published The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tienanmen Revisited, found that only 15 out of 100 students she interviewed recently could identify the Tank Man picture as having been taken in Beijing in 1989. That is perhaps too small a sample size to be more than anecdotal evidence, but I take it as indicative of the Chinese regime’s success in short-circuiting the historical memory of young Chinese. As an American I am hardly in a good position to judge the historical amnesia other nations and cultures impose. But I do venture to say that Harald Weinrich’s notion (based on Freud’s writings) of pacified vs. unpacified forgetting applies to this anniversary of Tienanmen. Unpacified forgetting comes before psychoanalytic treatment, pacified forgetting afterwards, after an internal “truth and reconciliation” process has come to a successful or at least adequate end. The number of prematurely dead people after Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” led to famine in the 1950s was in the tens of millions; and the Cultural Revolution caused far greater death and disruption than Tienanmen. But the protests of 1989 are still recalled as a reaching out toward democratic self-rule and as a cry against corruption–which is precisely why the memory of June 1989 has been so scrupulously, or unscrupulously, suppressed.

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