Tiananmen Mothers Press For Answers, 20 Years On Grass-roots activism has grown in China in recent years. But the demands of one group continue to fall on deaf ears: the Tiananmen Mothers. The parents of children who were killed 20 years ago in the crackdown on democracy protests want a full public accounting of the incident.
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Tiananmen Mothers Press For Answers, 20 Years On

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Tiananmen Mothers Press For Answers, 20 Years On

Tiananmen Mothers Press For Answers, 20 Years On

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Now, NPR's Anthony Kuhn introduces us to the leader of the Tiananmen Mothers, a group of parents whose children were killed in the military crackdown.

ANTHONY KUHN: On the night of June 3rd, 1989, 17-year-old Jiang Jielian defied his parents and headed towards Tiananmen Square to support the pro-democracy protestors. Witnesses said soldiers shot him and he died on the sidewalk. His mother, Ding Zilin, tried six times to commit suicide, and she can't bear to discuss the details of his death. Speaking before the anniversary, Ding said she was planning a quiet commemoration.

Ms. DING ZILIN (Leader, Tiananmen Mothers): (Through Translator) At 10:30 on the evening of June 3rd, I'll go to the Muxidi subway exit and mourn at the spot where my son fell. But two weeks ago, the national security agents told me they hope I will not go.

KUHN: Reports say police barred Ding from going out yesterday, and her phone rang unanswered today.

Ding organized a group, the Tiananmen Mothers, which now represents 100 families. Every June 4th since 1995, they've written to China's leaders calling for a full public accounting of the incident. Ding and her husband have lived under house arrest for the past five years. Ding says they've never received a response to their letters, but they've done what they can and ought to.

Ms. ZILIN: (Through Translator) I can face my dead son's spirit and say that in 20 years, this group of women has defended our integrity as human beings and our rights as human beings.

KUHN: A lot has changed in 20 years. Ding is now 73. The national security agents who monitored her used to be a brutish bunch of ex-soldiers who cursed her as a traitor. Now, the state's iron fist is swathed in an ever-more velvety glove, and she says the agents are more polite.

Ms. ZILIN: (Through Translator) Their message is basically the same. But now it's more beautifully packaged. Those ex-soldiers were uneducated and had to be replaced. The national security officer I deal with now has two college degrees.

KUHN: Beijing maintains that the protests were aimed at overthrowing the government and had to be put down. Ding says that an official resolution of the Tiananmen issue is getting farther away, not closer. She bemoans the government's encouragement of materialism to anesthetize citizens to injustice.

She castigates her critics who would condemn her to suffer in silence, lest her appeals mar the appearance of China's strength and harmony. And yet, she forgives young people today who choose to ignore what little public information is available in China about the incident.

Ms. ZILIN: (Through Translator) The June 4th massacre was too cruel, so parents have tried to protect their children by keeping them away from this forbidden topic. If I had not suffered this tragedy, perhaps I, too, might be so selfish.

KUHN: Adding to her sense of isolation is Washington's tactful new approach on human rights. Ding notes, for example, that before she became House speaker, Nancy Pelosi was once kicked out of China for protesting in Tiananmen Square. On an official visit here last week, though, Pelosi emphasized the importance of engaging China's government on global warming. Pelosi said she was proud of what she had achieved.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Speaker of the House; Democrat, California): Fact is, we did bring up human rights. I guess it was 18 years ago now, I stood on Tiananmen Square with a banner. That was my opportunity to express the concern that I, as a member of Congress, had for human rights in China and Tibet. I am now speaker of the House and have the opportunity to speak directly to the president of China.

KUHN: Ding Zilin sees it this way.

Ms. ZILIN: (Through Translator) On one side of the balance are universal values: freedom, democracy and human rights. On the other are money, utility and pragmatism. Right now, the latter side is up high, the former, down low. The U.S. now needs China too much. I feel this is shortsighted.

KUHN: Ding says Beijing's position on the events of 1989 will not budge, as long as those leaders who ordered the crackdown are still alive.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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