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Tiananmen Exiles: Voices or the Struggle for Democracy in China by Rowena Xiaoqing He - book review: 'Bold attempt to reclaim Chinese history from the state'


A 70-year-old Chinese national has experienced more historical change in her lifetime than all her ancestors put together. The fast-forward blur from Japanese occupation to civil war to Maoist revolution to capitalist superpower is impossible to take in. The best that Tiananmen Exiles can do is pause on a few pivotal frames.

The book's most haunting image from 1989 is unarmed students holding hands and singing "The Internationale" while facing Communist machine guns. That moment of contradiction defines the Tiananmen generation. They were born at the end of Mao's Cultural Revolution, but grew up at the beginning of Deng's reform era. The author and her interviewees started life in an Orwellian world where one strived to be a "three-good student" and cheerfully trooped off to field and factory for labour. They imbibed revolutionary sacrifice first and the new individualism later – a heady blend.

The Chinese expression for the Tiananmen protests translates as "June 4", a date as iconic as 9/11. No one knows how many people died when the People's Liberation Army opened fire in Beijing and elsewhere but, as Sinologist Perry Link points out, it was certainly fewer than the 1,400 African children who die from preventable malaria on a typical day. And a lot fewer than the 30 million who died as a result of Mao's Great Leap Forward.

But unlike Mao's blunders, the June 4 use of lethal force was calibrated and successful. The strategy was based not just on bullets, but on a Faustian pact the Chinese Communist Party offered to the people: freedom to make money in exchange for giving up democracy. Most accepted the deal, but the Tiananmen exiles did not.

Rowena Xiaoqing He's book is an oral history of the three main leaders of the June 4 protests. Wang Dan and Yi Danxuan served prison sentences of nine and four years respectively. Shen Tong, however, escaped to the US where he became a successful media entrepreneur.

All three suffer estrangement, not just from China, but from the post-Tiananmen generation who consider the 1989 exiles as national traitors. The Chinese Communist Party's control of state-run education and media has spread a fog of "historical amnesia" in which the Tiananmen exiles have been "marginalised and demonised". Orwell's maxim that "who controls the present controls the past" is apt. China needs, in the words of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo, "to recover memory and history".

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