Twenty years after she lost her 17-year-old son in the 1989 bloody, military crackdown of protests on Tiananmen Square, a mother remembers the events of 3 and 4 June 1989 and talks about her fight to get the authorities to openly investigate the Tiananmen massacre and offer compensation to victims.

This interview was published by Belgian magazine HUMO and by the Netherlands Press Association, then the largest newspaper group in the Netherlands. 



Two decades after the bloody crackdown on protestors in Beijing, the Mothers of Tiananmen Square demand the Communist Party comes clean.


in BEIJING, China

05 March 2009

He has a daring smile on the portrait in his parents' living room. Wrapped around his head is a red scarf, a sign of protest. His eyes have a challenging glare. This is what Jiang Jielian, a 17-year-old student, looked like during the 1989 protests on Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing. It cost him his life.

,,Look here.'' Jielian's mother Ding Zilin points to another wall in the room. ,,This is the very last photo taken of him.'' The 73-year old woman lets out a deep sigh. The photo was taken on 3 June 1989.

On it, Jielian is in the first row of a big crowd which is on its way to Tiananmen Square. They want to show support for the students in the Square who are on a hunger strike to protest the absolute rule of the Communist Party.

Jielian and several others carry a big banner. 'We support you even until death', it says. A few hours after this photo was taken, Ding would see her son for the last time.

,,Students had been protesting for a couple of weeks already'', Ding recounts from memory, sitting in the living room of the Beijing apartment she shares with her husband. ,,My son was incredibly curious. At nights, he would sneak out of the house to see what was going on in the city. Even by the time the streets were filled with soldiers and guns, he would still go out to witness it all.''

On the night of 3 June, Jielian planned to go out again. His parents told him no. The army was everywhere by now and the atmosphere in Beijing felt as if a violent outburst wasn't far away.

,,We couldn't convince him to stay inside'', Ding says. ,,He told us: I have to go outside! I have to be there for my country. If all parents would be as selfish as you are, this country would get nowhere!''

,,Later that night, while we were sleeping, he broke a window and jumped on his bike.''

At the same time, tanks of the People's Liberation Army drove into the city. The authorities opened their attack on the protesting masses on and around Tiananmen Square. At least hundreds died. Exact numbers of casualties have never been published.

Jielian died too that night, just one day after his seventeenth birthday. He was shot in the back. The bullet punctured his heart.

'In seventeen short years, you lived like a true man', reads the inscription his parents had engraved into a wooden pillar in their living room. Inside it are the ashes of their son. The inscription continues: 'Your feeling of human honor and integrity lives on in history, which never forgets'.

If it's up to the Communist Party however, history will be forgotten. Twenty years since the massacre on Tiananmen Square, the Party is still almighty. The authorities try everything to make sure the 'June 4 incident', as it is euphemistically referred to in China, will disappear from collective memory. The upcoming anniversary however still makes them nervous.

,,A few weeks ago, I received a phone call from the police'', says Ding. ,,The officer reminded me that this year is an extra sensitive one and that I should not let myself be exploited by foreign media who want to hear the story of my son.''

Every five years since 1989, the former professor in philosophy notices the government keeps extra track of her. ,,They watch my home, tap my phone and mail. A while ago, someone broke into this apartment and stole notes I made for an article about the past thirty years.''

Before her son's death, Ding and her husband Jiang Peikun worked at the prestigious Renmin University in Beijing. They were never activists. Ding was even a loyal, uncontroversial member of the Communist Party for 29 years.

Jielian's death crushed her. It destroyed her faith in the Party, which now had become her son's murderer. Two years after the massacre, she started to get in touch with other parents who had also lost a child on the Square.

Ding hasn't stopped since. She fights to make the authorities open up about what exactly happened on 4 June 1989. Her fight has landed her in jail several times already. Both she and her husband lost their positions at Renmin University.

Last week, Ding published an open letter, calling upon the Party to show courage and finally breach the secrecy around the 'June 4 incident'. The letter calls for an official investigation and compensation for the families of people who lost their lives. It is signed by 127 women who collectively call themselves 'Mothers of Tiananmen Square'.

,,The government lacks this kind of courage'', Ding knows beforehand. ,,My country is failing. My son died for the future of China. Now, I am dedicating my own life for that future. I have become an activist out of love for my son. I want the facts about what happened. By now, I too am no longer afraid to die for the cause of freedom.''