Louisa Lim is an award-winning journalist who has reported from China for a decade, most recently for National Public Radio. Previously she was the BBC’s Beijing Correspondent. She lives with her husband and two children in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Young China Watchers (YCW): You have been a journalist in China for the past decade, how has the working environment for foreign media in China changed?
Louisa Lim (LL): Recently there has been a rapid deterioration of the work environment for foreign media and their sources, who are increasingly being obstructed, harassed and worse. In 2006 in the run-up to the Olympics, we all hoped that there would be a real breakthrough when the government introduced new reporting regulations. Prior to that, on trips outside Beijing, journalists were supposed to be accompanied by minders from the provincial Foreign Affairs Office, so most trips required a certain amount of cloak-and-dagger behaviour. The pre-Olympic regulations only required journalists to obtain prior consent from their interviewees, so they seemed to be a step forward on paper at least, but in the years since it’s clear that they are being ignored by the authorities on the ground. Now we have a situation where vast swathes of Tibetan areas and Xinjiang are off-limits to foreign journalists. A Foreign Correspondents Club of China survey in May 2014 found that 99% of respondents said reporting conditions in China did not meet international standards and 80% felt conditions had worsened, while half reported that their assistants had been harassed or intimidated. This year, before June 4th, foreign journalists were summoned by the authorities to receive warnings not to report on the anniversary. We are also seeing increasing numbers of cases of harassment and intimidation of news assistants. We are also seeing increasing numbers of cases where visas are denied. So unfortunately despite positive changes on paper, in reality the situation is worsening.
YCW: One of the main themes in your book, ‘The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited”, is ‘the Great Forgetting’ and the censorship of the protests. What are the main techniques for keeping minds, especially the young, off what happened 25 years ago? What are the limits?
LL: In the immediate aftermath of the killings, the government flooded the information space with documentaries, pamphlets, newspapers and books supporting its narrative of the protests as ‘counter-revolutionary riots’. Over time, that strategy has been reversed to become one of silence, where those books have disappeared from the shelves and the internet is censored. In rare cases describing the events of June 4th – for example in university textbooks – history is sometimes falsified. One university textbook covering that period has just 4 pages out of 529 referring to the events of 1989, and even those contain what the French academic Michel Bonnin calls a ‘monumental historical untruth’. As Andrew Nathan puts it, “the amnesiac drug of shallow nationalism” has also been put into play to aid the Great Forgetting. This year, the government did not flinch from using intimidation to stop people from acts of public commemoration. According to overseas rights groups,152 people were detained or arrested in the run-up to the anniversary. In many cases, the charge of ‘creating a private disturbance’ was used against those trying to hold acts of commemoration behind closed doors. There was also a pattern of detaining or putting under house arrest those who spoke to the foreign media about 1989; in the case of Australian artist Guo Jian, he was detained then deported after speaking to the Financial Times. All of these tactics convey a very clear warning: that there could be a price to pay for publicly remembering or even talking about the events of 1989 to foreign journalists.
YCW: You studied and worked in Hong Kong for many years. How do you feel about the protests and umbrella movement as a Hong Kong resident?
LL: I hope these protests will finally put to rest the myth that Hong Kong people are apolitical or non-political. This misconception is simply untrue. Hong Kong people have repeatedly shown they will come out in huge numbers when they feel their interests to be seriously threatened. In 1989, a million HK people – a-sixth of the population – took to the streets to protest against the killings in Beijing. In 2003, half a million protested against attempts to introduce anti-subversion legislation in the form of Article 23. And this year, prior to the Umbrella movement, we saw 800,000 Hong Kongers taking part in Popvote, the unofficial consultation exercise on electoral reforms. For anyone who sees Hong Kong as home, these past few months have been both exhilarating and painful. Watching from afar, it has been inspiring to see the articulation and celebration of Hong Kong’s unique identity. But the increasing polarization of society has become obvious as the umbrella movement fractured and the public began to lose patience. It has also been sobering to see the creeping politicization of those institutions whose neutrality was so prized: the courts, the civil service and the police. The administration of CY Leung and the central government may end up prevailing, yet at what long-term cost?
YCW: The Hong Kong protests have now come into their 10th week and there was speculation that the Chinese government had used force to crack down on them. Having just published your book on Tiananmen, do you feel the conversations about what happened in 1989 have resonated even more strongly given the protests in Hong Kong, especially the Beijing’s response to the protest itself and the demands of student leaders?
LL: Absolutely. While there are clearly differences between what is unfolding in HK and what happened in Beijing in 1989, the resonances are striking. One email I got from a young man taking part in Occupy who had read my book said, “I am one of those with Amnesia & never knew the details. Similarities are shocking.” For him, one of the most disquieting images was the idea that he had just been pleading with the HK police not to resort to violence in exactly the same way as the Beijing protestors had begged the PLA not to resort to violence. Indeed, many of the tactics used by the students are the same such as the class boycott, the occupation of public space, the negotiations with government officials and the hunger strike. In terms of Beijing’s response, I was struck by how the central authorities reverted straight back to the same rhetorical playbook as in 1989. In both cases, front-page commentaries were issued in the People’s Daily, calling the protests illegal and driven by hostile foreign forces, warning about the economic impact of the protests and calling for unity. Of course, in 1989 the language used was much stronger with the protests labelled as ‘turmoil’. What happened in 1989 isn’t ancient history. Because of the government’s attempts to suppress discussion of it, 1989 has become the unmentionable that lies just beneath the surface, casting its shadow onto all that follows. In my book, I wrote about the “Mobius strip of crushed aspirations, cycling from one generation to the next.” When I wrote those words, little did I imagine they might also encompass such an enormous show of popular discontent as in Hong Kong.
YCW: As a long time China watcher, what kind of advice do you have for young journalists working in China, be it foreign or domestic. What else should they be equipped with beyond Chinese language?
LL: I would advise young journalists to look beyond the major cities. China looks very different when viewed from rural areas or small country towns, instead of from the urban centres where most journalists are based. My husband is from a small town in Yunnan. Returning there year after year, and gauging the concerns and preoccupations of his hometown friends was always a convenient reality check for me. Travelling around the countryside and visiting rural schools is always a useful corrective to the glitzy shopping malls of the urban mega-cities.
– Interview by Julia Voo