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Aging parents carry on Tiananmen Sq. fight

Victims’ families still press China to concede ’89 deaths

Ding Zilin, cofounder of the Tiananmen Mothers, stood before a photo of her son, Jiang Jielian, who died in the prodemocracy crackdown in Tiananmen Square 21 years ago tomorrow. Ding Zilin, cofounder of the Tiananmen Mothers, stood before a photo of her son, Jiang Jielian, who died in the prodemocracy crackdown in Tiananmen Square 21 years ago tomorrow. (Greg Baker/ Associated Press/ File 2008)
By Cara Anna
Associated Press / June 3, 2010

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BEIJING — The man was in his 80s and dying. The woman was 73 and held his hand. They each lost a son in the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and fought for decades to get China to acknowledge the deaths.

But Duan Hongbing would not live to see that day.

“I held his hand and told him that I won’t give up,’’ the woman, Zhang Xianling, said she told Duan on a visit to his Beijing hospital bed. She said he squeezed her hand and closed his eyes in response, no longer able to speak. He died last year, a few days after that promise was made.

As the 21st Tiananmen anniversary approaches tomorrow, the aging parents of victims fear their cause will die with them. The oldest of the Tiananmen Mothers, as the group is called, is 94 years old. The group’s leader, retired professor Ding Zilin, says more and more members die each year.

“Can it be that you really want to wear us all down or wait for our deaths so that the problem will naturally disappear?’’ the group wrote in an essay addressed to the Chinese government and made public this week through the group Human Rights in China, based in New York.

At the end, the 128 families who signed it attached the names of 22 signers who have died.

China’s government has never fully disclosed what happened when the military crushed the weekslong, student-led protests on the night of June 3-4, 1989, possibly killing thousands of students, activists, and citizens.

Authorities try to stifle any public activities that remember those who died. That has long caused friction with the victims’ families as they demand recognition and compensation.

“You have posted guards and sentries in front of the home of each victim’s family, followed us closely, watched us, eavesdropped on our phone conversations, interfered with our computer communications, and opened and confiscated our mail,’’ the essay says. “You have even arbitrarily detained us, arrested us, searched our homes, and confiscated our possessions, frozen donations to us, and deprived the freedom of movement of relatives of the victims.’’

Now the passage of time is setting limits of its own.

“I’m in my 80s, and my husband is in his 90s, and we’re the oldest parents,’’ said Li Xuewen, whose son was a 28-year-old graduate student planning to go abroad when the crackdown occurred.

“My husband is in critical condition at a hospital, and I’m even unable to visit my son’s tomb this year,’’ Li said.

Her voice was calm and firm as she spoke by phone yesterday. “Although we’re getting old and suffering from illness, we are clear in mind, and we will hold on.’’

Young people in China know little about the Tiananmen events, but it is clear the issue shimmers below the surface.

One of China’s most assertive state-controlled newspapers published a cartoon Tuesday that showed a little boy drawing a line of tanks on a blackboard, with what looked like a soldier standing in front.

It was part of a package for International Children’s Day, but the image was quickly passed around online with comments about the crackdown — then quickly removed from the paper’s website.

One of Tiananmen’s most enduring images is of a man standing in front of a line of tanks in the heart of Beijing and trying to block their way.

As authorities again put pressure on people inside China to prevent Tiananmen-related events, those in exile are choosing to mark the day on the latest popular online community — Twitter. The student leader who topped the most-wanted list after the crackdown, Wang Dan, said in an e-mailed statement yesterday that he would be tweeting along with the second most-wanted, Wu’er Kaixi, and fellow student organizer Chen Ziming.

The goal, Wang said, is to “express our determination that we will never forget Tiananmen.’’

Ding, cofounder of Tiananmen Mothers, said she makes a point of visiting relatives when a member of the group dies. Other members also visit or talk quietly.

“But it’s hard for us to have any kind of ceremony for them because of the situation in China,’’ Ding said.

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