Tiananmen Mom Remembers Son Killed 20 Years Ago

On May 17 about 50 elderly parents gathered in a private home for a memorial service to mourn their children who'd died in the June 4, 1989, crackdown on pro-democracy protestors. One notable absentee was 73-year-old Ding Zilin, founder of the Tiananmen Mothers organization, who'd been slated to deliver a memorial speech. Friends said authorities were severely restricting her movements until after the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square bloodshed. Recent phone calls to Ding went unanswered, but in late April, NEWSWEEK's Melinda Liu visited Ding in her Beijing apartment, where she still keeps a small shrine to her late son. Excerpts:

What do you think was the root cause of government repression against the Tiananmen Square protestors 20 years ago?
When I brought back the remains of my son, he was only a teenager. Why had he been killed? When I asked authorities for a reason, they explained that they had suppressed a riot. Now I understand that the June 4 incident was a tragedy of the system. It's impossible to rely on people in the leadership to rescue Chinese society … According to the party, the life of an ordinary Chinese person is just like the life of a blade of grass. China is the No. 1 country in the world governed by dictatorship. I am not optimistic about its future. The former leader of Cambodia killed people, and he was later sentenced to prison. So what about Deng Xiaoping, who'd ordered the Army to kill students?

When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited China earlier this year, she said disagreements over human rights should not get in the way of close Sino-U.S. relations.
I was disappointed with Hillary Clinton. Although, personally speaking, I feel grateful to her because she helped rescue me in 1995 when she was attending the international women's conference in Beijing. I also heard that Hillary wrote in her book that she didn't agree with President Bill Clinton attending a red-carpet ceremonial review of troops in front of Tiananmen Square when he made a state visit to China. I really felt very frustrated when he did that.

Tiananmen was the place where students were killed in 1989. With the blood of the students still wet, the wounds still there, unhealed, how could Clinton step onto the red carpet to review Chinese troops? I felt in my heart that he had stepped on the hearts of the mothers of Tiananmen.

What message would you like to pass to Hillary Clinton?
I welcome Hillary to visit me, and the former president, too. I welcome both of them to come to my home as guests of honor … Hillary had helped to free me when I was detained for 43 days in 1995. So please convey my thanks to her for her help. But the speeches she made later have disappointed me. She said the human-rights issue should not interfere with bilateral relations. If she puts it this way, I want to ask her whether the United States is still the biggest truly democratic country in the world? If I were to express my feelings about her in a respectful way, I'd say she's a stateswoman. Otherwise, I'd say she is a politician.

President Barack Obama will visit China this year. What would you say to him if you could?
I congratulate him on being a black man elected the president of the United States, and also Hillary Clinton on being a woman appointed the American secretary of state. I hope Obama will keep the promise that he made in his inaugural speech. I hope Obama will … rescue Liu Xiaobo [the human-rights activist detained Dec. 9 because of his involvement with the pro-democracy manifesto known as Charter 08, initially signed by 300 prominent Chinese]. We victims in China have all been watching President Obama and hope he does well. He promised change in his inaugural speech; we hope he can realize that.

Tell me what you know about Liu Xiaobo's detention.
Liu is now staying in a 10-square-meter windowless room. The only window is inside the bathroom of the detention center. I feel very disappointed by the world community's response to Liu's arrest. As a humanitarian request, the international community should appeal to the Chinese government to release Liu and allow him to be with his wife.

This year marks a number of politically sensitive anniversaries in China, not just that of June 4. What do you predict for the rest of this year?
The year of 2009 is a hard year for the Communist Party. It has to pass through the "gateway of ghosts" in 2009 because it killed so many young people during June 4. This is also the 50th anniversary of the exile of the Dalai Lama. The Communist Party usurped power by killing people, so it feels the tension. In 1988, Deng Xiaoping said that by killing 20,000 people, China would be able to sustain 20 years of peace and stability. People all over the country felt very angry about the killings at the time. Now, with the passing of time, some people have begun to forget the tragedy.

Are you saying that the government need not tell the truth about June 4 or that it dares not tell the truth?
It dares not. June 4 was not an isolated incident. This year is also the year of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. I told police that this is actually the 60th anniversary of power being usurped by the Communist Party of China. In 1949, I was only a 13-year-old girl studying in Suzhou. I saw with my own eyes how the Chinese government of the time suppressed and killed people from the Kuomintang Party [which was defeated by the Communists during China's civil war] who'd remained in the mainland. It killed truckloads and truckloads of people … Therefore, if the issue of June 4 is resolved fairly, what would they do about the issue of the Cultural Revolution? The persecuted followers of the Falun Gong movement? Tibet? They dare not.

How do you plan to commemorate June 4?
My husband and I have been busy with a big writing project in preparation for the anniversary. We were in his hometown in Jiangsu province last October, and two Hong Kong friends visited us. Police came into the house without even knocking. They grabbed me and tried to take me to the police station. I refused and told them they should show me their ID cards and go through proper legal formalities. I shouted that if they failed to show me their documents, it means they are breaking the law … A few days later, my husband passed out, and I called for an ambulance. Doctors said he'd had a stroke. After we returned to Beijing, doctors examined him, and he could not even remember our home phone number … they said he'd likely live simply like a vegetable. But [since] he was discharged from the hospital, I've been helping him with physical training and memory training. He's recovering well. He began working on the computer again—I don't know how to use the computer—to finish this writing project. He's very tired.

Is he risking his health?
True, if my husband hadn't been working so much he could have recovered sooner. We've been risking our lives to complete this project; my husband finished typing it up at the end of March. It's not a book; it's a continuation of our earlier declarations on social justice.

Last year after the Sichuan earthquake, Chinese officials showed remorse and condolences to parents who lost children in the schools that collapsed. You said they should also show remorse for June 4. Do you think you'll ever see them apologize to parents who lost kids in 1989?
I know they'd never apologize to us … If I were President Hu Jintao and I intended to get rid of Ding Zilin, this year would be the best year to arrest me. Otherwise, the cost could be much higher.