China fails to heal Tiananmen wounds

June 02, 1994|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- Five years after the crackdown on Tiananmen Square protests, few dissidents remain openly active in China's capital. But the wounds of those days still fester.

Ding Zilin's son, a gentle high school student named Jiang Jielian, was shot to death by China's army one day after his 17th birthday in the military assault on unarmed demonstrators June 3 and 4, 1989.

There still has been no accurate public accounting of how many people were killed in the massacre. The Beijing regime says about 300 died, mostly members of the military trying to restore order. Many human-rights activists believe the death toll exceeds 1,000, mostly students and workers protesting the government.

Ms. Ding, a 57-year-old philosophy professor, has doggedly documented more than 100 of these deaths. Her courageous research and contacts with other victims' families have cost her her teaching job and brought her heavy surveillance.

And with the approach of the Tiananmen anniversary, her harassment has continued round-the-clock.

Ms. Ding is a special case in that she is the rare relative of a victimwilling to speak out. But the official pressure that has been brought to bear on her life is typical.

Six plainclothes agents roost across the street from her apartment at People's University in northwest Beijing. More hang around the building's other three sides. Recent visitors have been interrogated for hours after they left her apartment. She is allowed out only for necessary chores.

"My home is a special prison, but even a special prison doesn't need that many watchdogs, does it?" Ms. Ding says.

If the regime doesn't leave her alone, she says, she and her husband will mark the Tiananmen anniversary with a three-day fast beginning today.

"I've lost too much," she says. "I'm not allowed to teach. Anything I write will not be published. Thirty percent of my salary was taken away. My colleagues were told not to have anything to do with us. These are the things that were taken away from me that the eye can see. But right now they're taking away things that the eye can't see.

"I just want some peace and privacy. I just want some peace with my son."

There aren't many dissidents left in Beijing now. Some, such as the father of China's modern democracy movement, Wei Jingsheng, have been arrested again. Others, such as leading labor activist Han Dongfang, have been allowed to go abroad but not return home.

Still others, such as former Tiananmen student leader Wang Dan, have left Beijing for the anniversary. Virtually all others have been warned by the government to keep quiet.

Thousands of armed police reportedly have been brought into Beijing's suburbs in recent days. Police yesterday were rechecking the residence permits of those living near Tiananmen Square. The square itself is thick with plainclothes agents, some openly brandishing walkie-talkies while trying to pose as tourists.

At the heart of the square, the Monument to the People's Heroes, where the last of the Tiananmen protesters waited for the lethal advance of the Chinese army, is cordoned off by a chain -- as it has been since 1989. Signs there admonish against unapproved "commemorative activities," "the laying of wreaths or garlands," taking pictures or even "joking or playing."

The fear inherent in these warnings underscores that the Tiananmen massacre remains an open wound on the Chinese body politic.

This contrasts starkly with China's remarkably rapid international recovery from the debacle, a recovery capped by the recent ending of the U.S. threat to withdraw China's favorable trade status. Economically, these are the best times for the world's largest nation. Many Chinese are freer than ever, except in challenging their government.

But in terms of domestic politics, the Tiananmen wound still could play a major role in overturning this regime.

The much anticipated death of China's ailing 89-year-old patriarch, Deng Xiaoping, will likely launch a scramble for scapegoats for Tiananmen, with the various factions within the leadership trying to tar each other -- if not Mr. Deng -- with the blame.

A measure of how politically unresolved the massacre and the preceding "counter-revolutionary" protests remain here is the case of Bao Tong, the most senior official jailed in connection with the 1989 protests.

Mr. Bao, 62, was the top aide to former Communist Party chief Zhao Ziyang, Mr. Deng's reformist heir who was toppled from power in Tiananmen's wake and who remains in political limbo.

Human rights groups say Mr. Bao, sentenced to prison until 1996, is seriously ill, perhaps with cancer. He has had five operations while in jail. But although China has released many well-known dissidents in the past few years in response primarily to U.S. pressure, Mr. Bao remains in solitary confinement at the notorious Qincheng Prison north of Beijing -- one of thousands believed still imprisoned because of the Tiananmen protests.

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