Q&A: Mother mourns Tiananmen massacre

Having lost her son 24 years ago in China’s deadly military crackdown, a retired professor continues to demand justice.

Tiananmen massacre
Ding Zilin (right) and her husband Jiang Peikun are demanding accountability [Rita Alvarez Tudela/Al Jazeera]

Beijing, ChinaOn the 24th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, retired university professor Ding Zilin is still demanding accountability for the military crackdown on pro-democracy activists that killed hundreds, possibly thousands, in Beijing.

Ding founded the Tiananmen Mothers group after her 17-year-old son, Jiang Jielian, was killed in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The group is demanding that China’s new leadership re-evaluate the June 4 massacre and find a just resolution.

China’s government has said the crackdown was necessary to suppress a “counter-revolutionary” revolt, and has never provided a death toll. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said last week China had long ago “reached a clear conclusion” about June 4.

Al Jazeera talked to Ding last week about the new leadership in China, and her failing hopes that her demands for justice will be met.

Ding Zilin, founder of Tiananmen Mothers group

Al Jazeera: What happened to your son?

Ding Zilin: I had a feeling that something was going to happen and that he could die. At that time, he used to live on campus. There were many critical banners, and we could see the people heading towards the downtown like a wave. At that time I was scared, I was afraid to see so many people passing by. On the night of June 3rd, he got up from his bed and he told me that he was going to go. I tried to stop him but he was determined to go to the square. When he left, I was afraid he was not going to come back. Before I used to be scared, but since the moment my son died, my pain and my suffering surpassed my fears. Then two years after I lost him, I broke my silence and I have never been scared again, especially not now … Some journalists have asked me whether time can heal the loss of my son, but it cannot. I am his mother.

AJ: Did you ever get any answer to your demands?

DZ: There has never been an answer.

AJ: What are your expectations of the new Chinese government?

DZ: In February, we wrote an open letter addressed to the new leaders of our country, expressing to them politely that we had hope of a new direction for China. Many days have passed and we have paid great attention to all the new statements of this new leadership. What is said behind closed doors, we don’t know. We only see what they do in public, and the official messages have disappointed me a little. We are very close to losing all hope. They have not made any promises of political reform. If they do not relax the policies, the problem of June 4th is not going be solved.

AJ: Many members of Tiananmen Mothers have died and others are getting old. Are you afraid of dying without an accounting for the massacre?

DZ: We are getting older and our health is getting worse. Since we started, 33 mothers have already died, so now there are only 123 members alive to keep signing the open letters. Whenever we get news that someone has died, we know there is one less mother, but that means there is one more father. We are very determined. They want to postpone the problem, waiting for us to die of old age. We have already written 36 open letters and they have never paid us any attention. They are just waiting for the mothers and fathers of Tiananmen to die.

AJ: Have the authorities contacted you already this year?

DZ: Not yet, but in March this year they came to tell me not to meet foreign journalists and I told them that that was impossible, that I have my rights. In April 1991, when the second anniversary of my son´s death was approaching, I broke my silence and I condemned the June 4th massacre and those responsible, like Li Peng and Deng Xioping. I disclosed to the public who my son was, how he died, and what my demands were. Since that moment, they started to hurt me, control me. As I explain to those who come to interview me, the price I have paid for breaking my silence has been very high. It has been my freedom, but I also paid a political price, an economic price, and I have paid with my health. They have detained me. Before I used to teach, but they stripped me of my status as a teacher and they took away my graduate students. More than 20 years have passed. You can understand why I cannot accept their conditions and why I cannot stop.

Ding Zilin demands justice [Rita Alvarez Tudela/Al Jazeera]

AJ: How is the situation since you broke your silence?

DZ: I have taken many risks in the past, much greater than the ones I take now. It has been a long time and I have faced many dangers, but I took a decision and there is no turning back. I have the right to express my opinion, and I have not broken any law, however much they claim I have. 

AJ: What did you tell them?

DZ: I told them that this year I plan to honour my son … and I hope they won´t stop me. They told me that for the sake of my health it was better that I did not go. In 2010, I fainted and they took me away and brought me home. So they told me it would be better if I didn’t go this year, because there are going to be many foreign journalists. But in fact, if I go there [Muxidi bridge] and I die from ill health, I will die in the place that my son died, and that would be a joy for me. If something happens to me that day, it is my own responsibility. It doesn’t have anything to do with them. From March until now, they have not tried to contact me and they have not called me. Before they used to cut off my phone, but now it is more sophisticated.

AJ: Are you afraid?

DZ: I have never been afraid. I tell you honestly, 24 years ago when the students, including some of my own students, arrived in the square on April 15th, at that time I was scared. Why was I scared? Because I had lived many years under the Communist regime, since 1949 when I was just a 13-year-old high school student in Suzhou, Jiangsu province. Later I moved to the north, to Beijing, and I have lived through everything the Communist Party has done. I know the party perfectly, and they have covered up the incident. When I used to talk with my students, I would tell them that I did not support the way the party does things. I told my son and the other students that, though I understood perfectly why they were protesting, I did not support them. Their demands were fair, but the Communist Party can be very cruel. I never expected that it would lead to a massacre of such magnitude, and that it could even affect my own family directly.

AJ: President Barack Obama is soon going to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping in the United States. Do you think this topic will be raised?

DZ: Obama is not going to do anything on this, despite been a Democrat like Clinton, he is very different. He is not going to do anything. I don’t have any hope placed on Obama. The improvement of human rights in China depends on the demands made by the Chinese population, but it also depends on attention from the international community. It’s a pity that 24 years have passed, and even though the international community follows the issue, they don’t do anything. Twenty-four years ago, Deng Xiaoping perpetrated a great massacre in front of foreign media from all over the world.  Foreign politicians are not going to confront China’s leaders, but the people have not forgotten the massacre. 

Source: Al Jazeera