Award-winning foreign correspondent Louisa Lim outlines some of the trials and tribulations of her journey.
“I’m going to start by talking a little bit about a case study, just so you can imagine what it feels like – to get an idea of what it’s like to be a journalist in China today,” Louisa Lim tells a group of students at Macleay College, who – even the ones listening in via Skype – are sitting up with interest. Who wouldn’t be fascinated by this woman’s story? Most of us can only imagine what it’s like living in China, a communist country, let alone living there and reporting the news to the outside world. Well, trying to.
Ms Lim is an investigative journalist of epic proportions. As an international correspondent in China for 10 years, her story starts in Beijing, where she was a journalist for BBC News, then for National Public Radio. During this time, she managed (at great risk) to secure interviews for her now-published book, The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited. Presently, she teaches at the University of Michigan, and can never return to China again.
During her career, Ms Lim tracked down eyewitnesses, deciphered diplomatic cables, and combed through official records to uncover China’s hidden secrets. The result is a “clear-eyed account of a story that has remained untold for a quarter of a century”.
“Truth telling is a dangerous occupation,” she says, and during her lecture she recounts just how she, and others, worked in China.
She speaks with passion about a Chinese man, Yang Jisheng, and the magazine he worked for, giving a rare look into Chinese journalism before delving into her own insane experience.
“Last April, this magazine was given a list of 15 topics and any article that was written about any of these 15 topics needed to be submitted for an extra layer of pre-publication approval. And these topics included things like ‘important documents regarding the Party and State’, ‘ethnicity and religion’, ‘military affairs and defence’, ‘the Cultural Revolution’ and ‘important historical events in communist party history’ and that was on top of the normal taboos,” she explains. So what on earth can you report on in a communist country? Not a lot. Ms Lim reveals that only 20% of the magazines articles made it through censors and into print.
The “normal taboos” for journalists in China include corruption within the leadership, Tibet, and the famous Tiananmen crackdown. Note the latter was exactly what she chose to write about. Talk about brave!
The risks certainly paid off, though: The New York Times Book Review called the book “one of the best analyses of the impact of Tiananmen throughout China in the years since 1989”, while the Financial Times described it as “outstanding”.
However, writing about China’s secrets, while in China, wasn’t easy. Ms Lim speaks about how the Chinese government would rather certain episodes of history remain forgotten, and how sometimes, events are wiped from official party history, as well as the memories of Chinese people. “I wrote about how Tiananmen changed China, and how China subsequently changed Tiananmen as it set down its own version of history,” she says, adding that getting people to talk to her was particularly trying. “I found that historical amnesia also was a massive theme. I was writing about 1989, the Tiananmen movement and the legacy of the brutal Tiananmen crackdown. Even to this day we don’t know how many people died,” she says.
Exploring the hidden secrets of China brings even more light to the danger of being a “truth-telling” journalist in China, and Ms Lim counts herself lucky not to be among a number of journalists jailed in China on “anti-state charges”.
“Journalism is facing an existential crisis in today’s China,” she warns. “Anyone who is a journalist in China is working in a system of ambiguity. And ambiguity breeds fear. Fear breeds self-censorship and silence.”
However, everyone can strive to live by Louisa Lim’s example. “We are in very dark days for Chinese journalists,” she says. “But we overseas also have a role to play, and we should be vigilant in tracking Chinese censorship, and seeing how it is being used, and monitoring it, and countering it with the sunlight of transparency.” – Lauren Croft
Photo of Louisa Lim courtesy of Leila Navidi.