25 Years On, Mothers Of Tiananmen Square Dead Seek Answers : Parallels A bullet to the head killed Zhang Xianling's son near Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. Since then, she has led a group demanding the truth and accountability for those deaths.
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25 Years On, Mothers Of Tiananmen Square Dead Seek Answers

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25 Years On, Mothers Of Tiananmen Square Dead Seek Answers

25 Years On, Mothers Of Tiananmen Square Dead Seek Answers

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MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: The Tiananmen mothers have faced grief, depression, and government harassment for a quarter-century. As the name implies, the group is made up of mothers who lost loved ones on June 4th, 1989, as Chinese soldiers rolled into Tiananmen Square. The mothers calls for truth and accountability have made them a political pressure group. NPR's Louisa Lim brings us this profile of one of the cofounders.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: It was a tissue-thin white paper slip. The elderly women handed it over carefully for me to examine. It was her son's death notice, written in hurried script with the words, shot outside and died. He was 19 years old. This flimsy slip was proof of the crimes of the state. For the past quarter-century, Zhang Xiangling has kept it in a cardboard box, nestled between her son's childhood photos and his swimming certificate.

ZHANG XIANGLING: (Through translator) I'm a pretty strong person. I don't cry often. This kind of scar is with you forever. It's hard not to despair.

LIM: 76-year-old Zhang is diminutive, with sensible hair and comfy shoes. Yet her story is one of extraordinary resilience in the face of despair. When Chinese students occupied Tiananmen Square in 1989, her son Wang Nan, a high school student, was drawn into their orbit. As a aspiring photojournalist, he wanted to record history.


UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER 1: As troop lorries were seen moving down the road, there was gunfire from those lorries.

LIM: When the army approached the Square, as described by the BBC, Wang Nan sneaked out with his camera, dashing forward to take a photo of the troops. He was shot in the head. When passers-by came to his aid, soldiers ordered them to leave him alone. Medics were not allowed to take him to a hospital. He bled to death by the roadside. His body was hastily buried in a flower bed. Nobody told his mother. For 10 whole days, she waited for news as friends visited 24 different hospitals looking for his corpse.

XIANGLING: (Through translator): In a week, my hair turned gray. When my colleagues came to visit, they didn't recognize me. I had changed that much. I looked like a skinny old woman.

LIM: Zhang decided to channel her grief into finding out what happened. First to her own child, then to the others who died that night. She co-founded the Tiananmen mothers with Professor Ding Zilin, who became the group's public face. They began to compile a list of the dead. It now has 202 names, though many more died. But their task has been complicated by fear that muzzled relatives of the dead.

XIANGLING: (Through translator): At the time, there were many people who felt it was not honorable. They were afraid. Their sense of self-preservation is stronger than their sense of justice.

LIM: The two women went themselves, breaking the taboo by recording testimony like this and writing open letters to China's leaders. Their demands were simple - truth, accountability and compensation. Three words that challenged China's communist party. In 2004, Zhang was detained with two other mothers. They were released after four days.

XIANGLING: (Through translator): When you're fighting against such powerful organs of state, there are bound to be sacrifices. I was ready, even now. Some people say the darkest time is just before the dawn. I hope the darkness doesn't fall upon me, but if it does, I'm ready.

LIM: These are words she lives by. Around two weeks ago, she attended a meeting in Beijing, remembering the killings. Five of the 15 people there have now been detained. Most of the others, like her, were questioned, then released. Her life is lived under surveillance. Sometimes, up to 40 people watch her. There's even a surveillance camera trained on the spot where her boy died to stop her mourning her dead son in public. Her grief, her refusal to forget is perceived as a threat.

XIANGLING: (Through translator) Such a great, mighty and correct party is afraid of a little, old lady. It shows how powerful we are, this group of old people, because we represent righteousness.

LIM: Yet the bitter truth is that a quarter-century of campaigning has not changed the government's position. And time is thinning the ranks of the mothers.


LIM: This is testimony from another member, Ya Weilin. Two years ago, he hanged himself. In his suicide note, he wrote of the bleakness of decades passing without justice for his son. His death was a sign of their isolation within China. Yet despite this, their impact is impressive as a moral force. Last year, at the June the 4th vigil in Hong Kong, many thousands of people wore T-shirts featuring the Tiananmen mothers. I showed Zhang Xianling the photos. So many people, she gasped. And then she looked at me with a smile and added, so there is hope after all. Louisa Lim, NPR News.

BLOCK: Louisa's book about Tiananmen titled "The People's Republic of Amnesia" will be released on the anniversary, June 4th.


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