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Dissidents Speak Out as Tiananmen 10th Anniversary Nears

China: Government continues to maintain a web of silence over the massacre of hundreds of protesters. But the families of some of the victims want the world to remember.

May 30, 1999|JOHN LEICESTER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

BEIJING — Chinese troops killed You Weijie's husband as they shot their way into Tiananmen Square. Then, she says, officials had her state that he died of natural causes.

You's husband was shot in the pelvis in the June 4, 1989, crushing of the pro-democracy movement and bled to death in a hospital. Within a week, officials had cremated his body. A month later, they got You to sign a form saying he "died normally" and paid her the equivalent of just over $200 for her pain.

Ten years after the massacre in which hundreds died, the government's web of silence remains. The precise number of victims is unknown, their names and stories largely untold. Police sometimes watch and harass victims' relatives who dare lobby for an official apology and compensation.

Dissidents who challenged the official justifications for the crackdown paid with prison sentences. One democracy campaigner, Li Hai, is serving a nine-year sentence, apparently for compiling lists of people imprisoned in the wave of arrests that followed the bloodshed.

Chinese authorities have never allowed anniversaries of the crackdown to be publicly marked. To do so would be seen as a sign that the demonstrations are no longer officially considered an anti-government rebellion that needed to be crushed.

Officials want to ensure that the 10th anniversary passes without incident. They fear that any public commemoration could degenerate into dissent, fed by discontent over factory closures and rising unemployment. That could be disastrous for the glorious celebrations planned to mark 50 years of Communist Party rule on Oct. 1.

After NATO bombed China's embassy in Yugoslavia on May 7, Chinese leaders allowed tens of thousands to protest nationwide and stone the U.S. and British embassies in Beijing. In a subsequent anti-U.S. propaganda campaign, officials sought to use nationalism to discredit Tiananmen-era dissidents and distract attention from the anniversary.

But despite official efforts to gloss over the 1989 crackdown, a small, loose-knit group of victims' families and people injured by troops persistently lobbies the government to investigate the bloodshed, punish those responsible and pay compensation.

"We've had to bury our pain in our hearts, so, of course, the government should pay compensation," You said in an interview. "The government should apologize to the whole country for such a crime against the people."

One dissident, Gao Hongming, has formed a group seeking compensation for the thousands of people imprisoned after the assault and for others, like himself, jailed for protesting on subsequent anniversaries.

So far, the government has ignored all appeals. Police have kept the most prominent campaigner for the victims, Ding Zilin, under virtual house arrest since May 4, refusing to let her and her husband leave the Beijing university where they live.

Plainclothes police officers stationed outside her home recently called her "a traitor," said Ding, whose 17-year-old son was killed in the crackdown.

Under orders from China's State Security Ministry, a bank has frozen funds worth $6,270 collected by Chinese students in Germany and donated to Ding to help the injured and families of those killed, she said.

Ding and others in their group have tracked down close to 160 families who lost loved ones and about 60 injured, said Su Bingxian, whose 21-year-old son was killed by three bullets in the chest.

"Everybody takes care of each other. We can speak freely to each other. We understand and help each other," Su said.

Although some victims' relatives don't dare sign the petitions the group occasionally sends to Chinese leaders, they say "I agree totally with what you're doing," Su said.

You Weijie said that police visited her home several times after she signed petitions and that the party chief of the cloth-dyeing and printing factory where she works has warned her not to take part. But she can't keep quiet.

"We believe our loved ones absolutely committed no crime, and were killed for no reason at all," she said. "What we are doing is standing up as people and saying: 'This should never happen again in China.' "

The seven weeks of peaceful democracy rallies started with the death of former Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang on April 15, 1989. Students who viewed him as a reformer marched on Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing, shouting slogans for democracy and freedom. From there, the protests snowballed, sometimes attracting crowds of more than a million.

Protesters occupied Tiananmen Square's vast expanse, turning it into a makeshift camp of tents, banners and city buses they used as dormitories. With demonstrators calling for their ouster and fearful that the protests were spiraling out of control into nationwide unrest, Communist leaders called in the army.

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