'The mothers of Tiananmen' challenge China for the truth

ON FRIDAY 62-year-old Zhang Xianling and her husband will head for the Wanan cemetery on the western outskirts of Peking. In front of the casket holding the ashes of their son, Wang Nan, they will place a single red rose, just as they have on this day every year for the past decade.

Wang Nan was a 19-year-old student when he was shot in the head in the early hours of 4 June 1989, close to Tiananmen Square, after China's leaders sent in tanks to crush pro-democracy protests. Hours later, he was buried in a nearby ditch. After the stench of the rotting bodies grew too strong, they were dug up, and Wang Nan's corpse transferred to a hospital. It was not until a week after his death, after she had searched 24 hospitals, that his mother was told to come and identify his body.

As the outside world marks the 10th anniversary of the crackdown, it is still not known how many hundreds, or possibly thousands, were killed. The remains of nine of the victims lie in Wanan cemetery. By each urn, Ms Zhang will place a rose; on the graves, she will put small bunches of flowers. "If you share other people's bitterness, then your own is less," she said.

Three of the Wanan victims were workers; the others were students. An epitaph on one tombstone reads: "Crying in sorrow for my son who, not yet reaching 30, abruptly left this world. Our family's star of hope suddenly fell from the sky ..."

In the years since the massacre, China has changed greatly. The economic boom of the mid-1990s brought prosperity for many and wider personal freedoms to choose one's own job, travel, and engage in private business. But for the families of the victims, the Chinese government has been unyielding. No public debate is permitted about the massacre; no full account has been given of the numbers killed, injured, or jailed; no public commemoration is allowed. The official "verdict" still stands that the "rioters" were involved in "counter-revolutionary" turmoil which it was "correct" to suppress by violent means.

Relatives have had to grieve in silence, often isolated, many in economic hardship. Ding Zilin, 63, a retired university professor, has spear-headed demands from relatives for a reversal of the verdict. Her only child, 17-year-old Jiang Jielian, was gunned down just before midnight on 3 June. Ms Ding and her husband will not be able to mark the 10th anniversary as they would wish. "Originally we planned to go to the place where my son was killed," said Ms Ding. This was Muxudi, in west Peking, where the troops first opened fire. "I've never been there. This year I thought I should be stronger, make an offering of a cup of wine and flowers ... I won't go there to chant slogans, I won't put up a poster, I won't make a demonstration. I just want quietly to mourn him. But it seems impossible." Since 4 May, she has been banned from leaving her compound because of her activities to publicise the 1989 victims. She keeps her son's ashes at home.

Relatives and exiled leaders of the 1989 movement will this week renew their demands for justice, including an unprecedented attempt to launch legal action against those who ordered the military crackdown. They have compiled a partial list of 155 people killed, which will be released outside China.

The anniversary is all the more poignant because China has just very publicly mourned the death of three journalists killed in the accidental Nato bombing of China's Belgrade embassy. Those victims have been proclaimed "revolutionary martyrs". Meanwhile, the victims of 1989 have been written out of the official historical record.

Ms Ding watched the public funerals for the journalists on TV. "I felt very sad for them, and for the families. It should not happen. As the mother of someone who died, I can feel more strongly the feelings of those parents who lost children. But at the same time I also feel very angry because I feel the government is a sham. Why does the government not admit the mistake of killing innocent people 10 years ago? Why don't they have a dialogue with us? They have a double standard on human rights."

Ms Zhang had a similar reaction. "Our children died because they were patriotic, but in a different way and in a different place." Both bereaved mothers saw obvious parallels with the Chinese government's demands over the Belgrade bombing. In March, a group of 20 relatives and the injured from 1989 signed a petition to President Jiang Zemin, calling for dialogue. Said Ms Zhang: "It's similar to our government's request to the US government [over the embassy]: to investigate and announce the truth, to investigate the individual cases according to legal procedure, to compensate according to the law, and punish those responsible." Like all previous such pleas, it remains unanswered.

Such lobbying is only for the brave. Ms Ding, because of her public stance, was expelled from the Communist Party, forced to take early retirement, and has suffered detentions, forced absences from Peking, and persistent harassment and surveillance. "I won't be threatened by them," she said. Li Hai, a 45-year-old former graduate student, was sentenced in May 1996 to nine years in prison for collecting information on the number of people still in jail. But no one is giving up.

"The first two years were the hardest," said Ms Zhang. "At the very beginning, because the government said it was a counter-revolutionary riot, even though people felt sympathy for us, they did not dare express it." After a few years, "people were not so afraid, so they dared to come to us, to comfort us. Since 1992, the mothers have started to identify the victims. I found many relatives' situations worse than mine; some were old, some were living in difficult conditions ... Some were peasants, their husbands dead and they had to raise their children alone."

Informal support groups have developed among the relatives. "We exchange our feelings," said Ms Zhang. "We know our children were not bad people. So they were killed for no reason. I believe there will be an explanation for it in the future. So we encourage each other, and our spirit is stronger."

Ms Ding's son would have been 27 this week. She wept as she imagined the adult that might have been. "I would hope that he would be a real man ... He had a mind, with ideas, even though he was not yet 18 when he was killed."

ISABEL HILTON, REVIEW

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