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Hong Kong Crowd Honors Hero of Tiananmen Square

China: Protesters demand to know what became of the man who stood alone in front of a tank convoy.

June 01, 1998|MAGGIE FARLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HONG KONG — Nine years after the Chinese government crushed pro-democracy protests around Beijing's Tiananmen Square, the country's leaders would like people to forget what happened there on June 4, 1989.

But there is one moment people still can't forget: the heart-stopping seconds when a lone man stood in the path of a column of tanks and forced them to stop. He was the face of moral strength against martial power; for an instant, his side prevailed.

On Sunday in Hong Kong, more than 2,000 people marched in tribute to that defiant courage and in memory of those who died in the bloody crackdown that followed. The rally was the first mass protest against Beijing's leadership to occur on Chinese soil since 1989, and a test of the tolerance of Hong Kong's new leaders.

Standing in the rain in front of Hong Kong government offices, leaders of the march presented a petition demanding a reassessment of the Tiananmen massacre and the release of political dissidents, including Wong Weilin, the man who stood in front of the tanks and hasn't been heard from since.

"Where is Wong Weilin and who is Wong Weilin?" asked Lee Cheuk-yan, spokesman for the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movement in China, a group that helped spirit dissidents out of the mainland in 1989. "It is still a mystery. When China has a democratic government, maybe we will finally know."

Chinese President Jiang Zemin has denied that anyone with that name is in prison or was reported dead after the June 4 events. No one seems to know whether the man escaped or was executed, or even if Wong Weilin is his real name, according to Robin Munro, Hong Kong director of Human Rights Watch/Asia, who has tried to track him down. The only mention of his identity appears in an Evening Standard story reported by telephone from London a few days after the crackdown.

"Though we're not sure who he was, he is an incredibly powerful symbol," Munro said Sunday. "That image epitomizes the essence of the democracy movement, of speaking truth to power."

In Hong Kong, a tiny speck of 6.6 million people in relation to the motherland's 1.2 billion, the image has special resonance. China reclaimed the territory from the British on July 1 but pledged to allow it autonomy for 50 years. Hong Kong is small, said Lee, "but now we are standing on Chinese soil, and we represent the people of China. It is our duty to speak up for human rights for the whole country, because we can."

Since China's best-known dissidents, Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan, were released from prison within the past seven months and exiled to the United States on "medical parole," human rights activists are using the image of the man and the tanks to represent the "no-name" dissidents who are still in Chinese prisons.

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As many as 3,000 people remain incarcerated for participating in the Tiananmen demonstrations, said Frank Lu Siqing, who runs the Information Center of Human Rights and Democratic Movements in China. A group of 21 dissidents has written an open letter to the Chinese government demanding these prisoners' release, he said, and at least 10 activists have been detained to ensure that they don't make trouble Thursday on the anniversary of the crackdown or during President Clinton's scheduled visit to China in late June.

In Hong Kong, however, the freedom to protest peacefully and criticize the government continues, contrary to widespread fears of post-hand-over change. Last year, before taking the reins as Hong Kong's chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa encouraged citizens to leave the "baggage" of Tiananmen behind. This year, he didn't comment, but police closed roads to make way for the annual march and allowed one faction to place a coffin inscribed "Down with Jiang Zemin" at the Chinese Foreign Ministry's office in the territory.

The commemoration here of June 4 is to culminate in a candlelight vigil at Victoria Park on Thursday night, an annual event that drew 55,000 people last year.

"It is more important this year than ever to show we remember June 4," said Rita Lee, a secretary who lifted her daughter to see Sunday's marchers. "This is the first year after the hand-over. If we want to keep our freedoms, we should show they are important to us."

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