Hai Nan  |  Radio Free Asia

Ding Zilin has sought justice for the death of her 17-year-old son, Jiang Jielian, killed during Tiananmen  crackdown 4 June 1989  (chinhdangvu)

Ding Zilin has sought justice for the death of her 17-year-old son, Jiang Jielian, killed during Tiananmen crackdown in June 1989 (chinhdangvu)


Every March, for the past 20 years, the Tiananmen Mothers victims group has penned a public letter to China’s rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), in a bid to reopen public debate on the bloodshed that ended weeks of protest on Tiananmen Square in 1989.

At the same time, high-ranking leaders, often pressed by foreign journalists, have repeated their view that the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s verdict of “political turmoil” is accurate, and that the debate is closed.

This year, no letter has been written, according to retired university professor Ding Zilin, whose 17-year-old son Jiang Jielan was killed when People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops entered the capital in tanks, raking bystanders and buildings alike with automatic weapons fire.

“We decided that this year, we won’t be writing anything,” said Ding, who has campaigned tirelessly through the group she founded for official recognition of the innocent lives that were lost. “We won’t be sending an open letter.”

No reply from government

Previous letters have called on the NPC to overturn the official verdict of “counterrevolutionary rebellion” passed on the student-led pro-democracy movement, to compensate victims’ families, and to publish official documents from the time, including full details of deaths and injuries.

“We have been writing these letters year in, year out, for the past 20 years, but we have never had any kind of reply, not a single word,” Ding told RFA.

“Their only response has been police surveillance and house arrest.”

She said many of the group’s members were already under surveillance by the time the NPC opened on March 5.

“We are all being watched,” Ding said, adding that while there is no obvious police presence near her apartment, the police always seem to know exactly what she and her husband have planned.

Fellow Tiananmen Mothers activist Zhang Xianling, who lost her 19-year-old son during the crackdown, said she had been asked by the authorities not to give media interviews during the NPC annual session, but had refused to comply.

“This year, I told them that I’d give interviews to anyone who called, or who showed up here,” Zhang said. “They said that in that case they would have to post a guard.”

“On Feb. 28, two police vehicles appeared in the courtyard manned by police, and two private security guards were stationed at the entrance to the lift downstairs to stop journalists,” she said.

“I can see my friends and relatives, but I can’t see journalists, nor any members of the Tiananmen Mothers,” said Zhang, who recently hit out at foreign governments for not making public confidential diplomatic documents from embassies at the time of the crackdown.

‘Playing the piano to cows’

Zhang, who still doesn’t know whether her son Wang Nan died instantly after being shot on a street to the south of the Square, or whether soldiers prevented an ambulance from taking him for emergency treatment, as one account suggests, said she agreed with the decision not to bother writing to the NPC any more.

“They have shown no respect to our previous statements,” she said, adding that the majority of NPC delegates are deaf to the group’s complaints. “We have spent 20 years playing the piano to cows.”

“I just hope some NPC delegates will put the June 4, 1989 incident on the agenda.”

In January, a trove of diplomatic cables unearthed from Canadian archives by the Ottawa-based Blacklock’s Reporter news website, gave a rare glimpse of the horror of Beijing-based diplomats who witnessed the bloodshed, often first hand.

One of the cables, the result of a freedom of information request by Blacklock’s journalist Tom Korski, described the crackdown as “savage,” while others cited harrowing interviews with survivors and eyewitnesses as the army drove columns of tanks into the heart of Beijing and fired automatic weapons at unarmed citizens.

The number of people killed when PLA tanks and troops entered Beijing on the night of June 3-4, 1989, putting an end to weeks of mass protests that paralyzed central Beijing, remains a matter of dispute.

Zhao rehabilitation

Not all the victims were civilians, as citizens in some areas took makeshift weapons to fight back. Canadian cables refer to bodies being dragged out of a Beijing canal which appeared to be those of garroted soldiers.

Chinese officials once put the death toll at “nearly 300,” but Beijing has never issued an official toll or list of names.

Just ahead of the NPC’s opening session this year, police in Beijing detained political activist Li Jinping, who has called publicly for the rehabilitation of late ousted reform-minded premier Zhao Ziyang, also for many years.

Zhao fell from power in the wake of the military crackdown on the protests amid accusations that he took too conciliatory a line with the students.

Zhao, who died 10 years ago on Jan. 17, is rarely mentioned in public, and his name and image have been removed from many official publications.

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