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Let Our Children’s Lives Continue through Us: Interview with Ding Zilin

June 4, 2009

Li Heng

For nearly 20 years, and against official silence, Ding Zilin and other families of the victims of the June Fourth crackdown—the Tiananmen Mothers—have pressed the Chinese government for “truth, compensation, accountability.” In this interview, Ding asks not only the Chinese authorities, but also the student leaders, to reflect upon their responsibility in the tragic event.

Li Heng: At the end of February
this year, right before the convening
of the “Two Sessions,”1
the Tiananmen Mothers delivered
to the Two Sessions an open
letter entitled “Please Show
Courage, Break the Taboo, Face
June Fourth Head On.”2 Your
group has delivered an open letter
to the Two Sessions every
year since 1995 to demand a just
resolution to the June Fourth
issue, raising three demands:
“truth, compensation, accountability.”
How has the government
handled your demands? Also,
how should we understand your
three demands?

Ding Zilin: Since 1995, when we,
27 families of the victims, wrote
an open letter for the first time,
until February 2009, we have
sent 15 open letters to government leaders and representatives
of the Two Sessions. We have never received
any reply. You can see the government’s attitude from
the press conference the evening before the opening of
the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference
(CPPCC). There, a Voice of America reporter asked,
“Since ’95, the Tiananmen Mothers have written a letter
to the Two Sessions nearly every year advocating for a
resolution to the June Fourth issue. Have the representatives
of the Two Sessions received these letters? What
is the response?” And didn’t Zhao Qizheng3 answer in
this way? “The Party and the government have already
reached a conclusion.”They have repeated these words
endlessly. This has always been the response to our
open letters over the years. Of course, they also said
other things, like “we must start from the basic interests
of the wider public,” “we must protect the overall social
stability,” and “we must ensure the people live and work
in peace and contentment.”This has always been their
defense of the June Fourth crackdown.

Li: You said you had predicted
that the government wouldn’t
pay attention to these demands,
nor would they resolve the June
Fourth issue. So why have you
persisted for so many years?

Ding: We have persisted not only
for ourselves, but also in order to
change the country’s fate. For
over half a century, the Communist
Party has continuously
launched political movements,
with total disregard for human
life, persecuting people and persecuting
them to death. After
persecuting people to death, at
times that suit their political
needs—or, you can say, the needs
of factional struggles within the
Party—they rehabilitate people,
to win over people’s hearts,
reconsolidate their power, and
protect their own rule. We therefore feel that we must
change this kind of vicious cycle. That is why we do not
accept the so-called “rehabilitation”; we do not accept
their way of taking victims as hostages. In the end, we
recognize the need to change the Chinese Communist
Party’s (CPC) customary path of “persecution-rehabilitation”;
the Party acts as if no matter what has happened,
once the word “rehabilitation” is uttered, the
victims have to be deeply grateful, and the issue is thus
resolved. That is why we demand resolution of the June
Fourth issue within the judicial framework and according
to legal standards, investigating the legal responsibility
of those responsible, and not leaving it to the
say-so of a particular Party faction or leader. Only by
doing this can similar tragedies be prevented in the
future.

Although the government has long stated its position
on June Fourth, and proclaimed that it would not
budge, we still work hard at it. I believe effort accumulates like drops of water, and can eventually pierce
through stone. China’s progress requires people with
their feet firmly on the ground, working bit by bit; it
requires tenacity, perseverance, and a common direction.
Things will start to change sooner or later. The
Tiananmen Mothers is a small and weak group, capable
of saying and accomplishing very little. But we will continue.
Every little bit counts.

We have persisted not only for ourselves, but also in order to change the country’s fate.

Li: You are no longer merely demanding an explanation
for your deceased family members, but have acquired a
universal dimension.

Ding: During June Fourth, we lost our own children.As
a result we felt we should value life even more, value our
children and young people, even if they aren’t perfect
and have this or that problem.We cannot again let
young people and generations after them suffer the
same fate that my son and the other June Fourth victims
suffered.We also cannot again let China’smothers
and fathers suffer the pain of losing their children that
we have suffered. We must stop this kind of tragedy
from replaying in China. Therefore, we demand a just
and reasonable resolution to the June Fourth issue so
that our country can follow this example, to establish
and popularize among the Chinese people the concept
of respect for life. This is also an important step in the
long journey toward a civil society.

June Fourth was a crystallization of the Communist
Party’s mutilation of life. We must change this type of
history. Among us Tiananmen Mothers, no one wants
to overthrow the CPC regime. But the ideology of
Lenin’s and Stalin’s Soviet Communism, which the CPC
has been advertising since its founding, must be overthrown
and thoroughly abandoned. Otherwise we Chinese
people will truly be doomed forever and will never
be able to find our footing in the tide of human
progress.

We believe that what we do is not only an appeal to the
Chinese government, but also a kind of self-awakening.
It tests and trains our faith and endurance. Of course,
we are also speaking to society, speaking to the masses.
From a certain perspective, it is also an awakening of
others and of the masses.

Li: The bloody incident of June Fourth caused you to
think about the country and people and demand a
change in the cruel politics of contemporary China.
You have already been at it for twenty years. In fact, you
have become the commemorators of this bloody disaster
and the bearers of righteousness and justice of the
Chinese nation and people, particularly since the past
twenty years have been an era in which Chinese people
have rapidly lost their sense of morality.

Ding: There’s something that I must acknowledge. Our
people are indeed forgetful. In fact, our records and
narrative of June Fourth, as well as our pursuit of righteousness
and justice, fight against our people’s forgetfulness
and against the authorities’ intentional rubbing
out of the bloodstains. They also fight against our own
depression and despair. I believe that our persistence
over so many years has brought improved results. Even
if the government does not respond in good faith and
continues to suppress us, our testimony and appeal
nonetheless have had some impact here and overseas.
More and more people are gaining a better understanding
of June Fourth; more and more people sympathize
with and support us. And we ourselves have also been
transformed and elevated in the process.

[W]e demand a just and reasonable resolution to the June Fourth issue so that our country can follow this example, to establish and popularize among the Chinese people the concept of respect for life.

Li: Recently Dai Qing4 has again started raising the
South African model5 as a solution to the June Fourth
problem. What are your thoughts?

Ding: I welcome Dai Qing’s call, because her “truth, justice, and reconciliation” are similar to our three basic
demands. First is truth. There must be truth. What is
the truth about those who massacred and committed
violence? What is the truth about the victims, students,
workers, and citizens, as well as the Independent Federation
of Students, the Independent Federation of
Workers? Everyone must respect the facts. Only when
truth sees the light of day can we obtain fairness and
justice. Truth is the foundation of justice. Without the
complete truth, we cannot speak of justice. On the
point of demanding the truth, we are in agreement with
Dai Qing.

June Fourth was a crystallization of the Communist Party’s mutilation of life. We must change this type of history.

Dai Qing’s letter of appeal also raised the issue of justice.
Of course people differ in their understanding of
justice. But I think if we can have a shared understanding
of the respect for life and the rule of law, then our
understanding of justice will not be that different. In
addition, Dai Qing’s appeal also raised the issue of compensation.

However, the background of South Africa is different
from ours. The South African problem was a racial
problem between whites and blacks. At the time, a democratic
system had already been established and the
white people were already in the weaker position. They
made concessions to the black people on their own initiative
and returned social power to them. These were
the prerequisites for reconciliation. If the Chinese government
could also do this for the masses, then there is
hope for reconciliation. If not, then there is no hope.

Li: How do you view the ’89 Democracy Movement?

Ding: Up to this day, I still think that ’89 was a great
democratic movement. Great, because one million people
participated in the capital. I think this was an
extraordinarily heroic point in the history of the Chinese
people, and a point worthy of our pride. I take
pride in this. I think that these million people were all
everyday participants. They were not roused by any
particular student leader. I feel the impetus came from
the entire people’s love for our country, love for democracy
and freedom. It was a protest against 40 years of
Communist Party authoritarianism, a protest against
injustice and corruption of power. It was this that
pushed people onto the street; this was the quintessence
of the ’89 Democracy Movement. So I think the ’89
Democracy Movement was extraordinarily great.
Despite its tragic end, despite my son’s death for this, I
still praise this movement and take pride in my son.

Li: I noticed that in order to break through the impasse
in resolving the June Fourth incident, in this year’s
open letter to the Two Sessions, you raised five concrete
demands, including: “1. Remove all monitoring of and
restrictions on the movements of June Fourth victims
and their families; 2. allow families of the dead to
openly mourn their loved ones; 3. stop intercepting and
confiscating both domestic and overseas humanitarian
aid contributions, and return all the aid money that was
previously frozen; 4. relevant government departments
should, in humanitarian spirit, help the victims who are
facing hard times to find employment and guarantee
them a basic livelihood, without any political conditions;
5. remove political biases against the disabled victims
of June Fourth such that they are treated as all
other disabled persons with regard to their public participation
and treatment by society.” In the past three
years, do you feel that these five concrete demands have
been realized?

We believe that what we do is not only an appeal to the Chinese government, but also a kind of self-awakening.

Ding: We must seek the truth from facts. I won’t say the
word “progress,” but there has been some change in the
state of affairs. The first item is to remove monitoring
of and restrictions on the movements of June Fourth
victims and their families. Take myself as an example. I
feel that the monitoring of my phone line has not been
removed. No matter where I go, my phone is monitored
24 hours a day. Also, our e-mail has become “open letters.”
Each letter is “looked over” by them. In other
words, my computer is monitored by them. I have no
secrets to speak of. However, when I go out I am no
longer followed. In both 2007 and 2008, I went to Muxidi6
on the night of June 3 to pay respects to my son and
the other victims who died there, and I was not
stopped. This shows that there has been a loosening on
their limitations on my movement. The second item,
allow families of the dead to openly mourn their loved
ones. What I just said about performing rites at Muxidi
can also be considered “open.” At that time I was in
front of many members of the foreign media. Although
there were plainclothes policemen watching, they did
not interfere. Of course, we did not give any speeches;
we only silently paid our respects.

As for the third item, in 1998 the authorities confiscated
a humanitarian donation of 11,620 German marks.
This was donated after 1989 to the families of June
Fourth victims by Chinese students studying in Germany.
The authorities did not give the money to us, nor
did they return it to the students in Germany. The students
sent checks. When we were cashing them, the Beijing
State Security Bureau notified Bank of China’s
Wuxi branch office to freeze the remittance. Just a few
days ago, I called the State Security Bureau to remind
them not to continue freezing these funds. But they did
the same as always and sent their twenty-first notice to
continue the freeze.

I feel the impetus came from the entire people’s love for our country, love for democracy and freedom. It was a protest against 40 years of Communist Party authoritarianism, a protest against injustice and corruption of power. It was this that pushed people onto the street; this was the quintessence of the ’89 Democracy Movement.

The fourth item is something they should do most of all. This is entirely a humanitarian question. Moreover, this is the easiest thing for them to do. Even citizens having a difficult time have basic support and employment help, etc., so why should families of June Fourth victims be deprived of these benefits? In addition, the government has money, and officials engage in corruption on a large scale and squander public funds. Why can’t they give a little to help the families of June Fourth victims? Many of these victims’ families have it very bad, but for the past 20 years they have not received any help from the government.

Those who bled and fought bravely in the massacre and ultimately died were all common people.

Li: In fact, this is political discrimination.

Ding: With regard to political discrimination, I will tell you this. Fang Zheng has gone to America, right? During June Fourth, his two legs were crushed by tanks and were amputated above the knee. I got to know him in the early 1990s. I knew that Fang Zheng and his family had no intention of going abroad. If the country had stopped discriminating against him, had allowed his family to live in peace, why would he have wanted to leave his homeland? At the time, Fang Zheng was 23 years old. Now he is already 43. It has been 20 years, and he has become a middle-aged man. His daughter is grown and is in elementary school. But how is this family of three, his wife without a job, supposed to live? His whole family depends on his parents’ retirement money for support. Only after many requests did Fang Zheng get the Anhui Province Hefei Disability Union to give him a job that paid 320 yuan a month. But this job was located on the third floor. How was his wheelchair supposed to get up there?

Fang Zheng was given no option but to leave. There are many more people in China who were disabled during June Fourth like Fang Zheng. They have suffered in silence for 20 years.

Li: In fact they are all normal, honest people.

Ding: If a government in fact has a bit of sincerity, these problems aren’t difficult to solve. The treasury has so much money that it is able to stimulate the economy, to buy American government bonds. So why can’t it give a little money to help these compatriots? How can they still talk about “putting people first” and “a harmonious society”?

[I]n the list of victims and the disabled that we’ve located, can you find one major or minor student or worker leader? Why is this so? I feel this is because the masses boldly stood up, voluntarily and on their own initiative, to protect the safety of the students in the square at the most dangerous time and in the most dangerous place.

The government won’t do anything. So, we have to think on our own. In 2007, we established a special fund for the elderly family members of June Fourth victims in extreme difficulty. That year, a civic organization in New Zealand awarded the Tiananmen Mothers 3,000 New Zealand dollars for bravery. After that, Liu Xiaobo7 also gave his prize money to us. Wang Dan8 And Wang Juntao9 also donated money to us. Our friends in China and abroad also donated money. Although the amount wasn’t much, it was enough to get us started. At present, we have located very few families of June Fourth victims. They are just the tip of the iceberg. Only the government can provide a complete list of names.

We demand that the government solve the hardships of the families of June Fourth victims, but without adding any political conditions whatsoever, such as requiring them to relinquish their right to sue. We will discuss anything with the government. But there are two things that we will not discuss. One is that we must not dishonor the spirits of the dead. The other is that we must not violate the integrity and dignity of the victims’ families. This is our bottom line.

Li: Twenty years ago, you were all middle-aged. Now you are already in old age. Many people are in their 80s and 90s. In the years ahead, people may continue to pass away. Do you believe, for example, that you and Professor Jiang10 will see a reassessment of June Fourth in your lifetime?

Ding: When we wrote the letter to the Two Sessions this year, 19 of our friends had already passed away. They did not live to see the day of justice. We who are old and frail may not live to see that day either, but this does not affect the fact that we will do all that we can in the time we have left. We recognize that there is no life after death, so we will let our children’s lives continue through their parents. Only in this way would there be meaning and value in each day that we live, and could our hearts be at peace. So while we are on this earth, we must build a good foundation for this issue. I wish to make a record of all that we’ve experienced and all the truth we’ve learned about June Fourth, to give it—through our words and voices—to history, to our compatriots, to the world.

Li: Yes. About the June Fourth tragedy, people have criticized the students, saying that they bear some of the responsibility, especially certain student leaders. What are your views of this issue?

I don’t intend to blame those young, naïve student leaders. But after 20 years, I think at least we parents of the victims have the right to demand that they reflect on it.

Ding: I think this is a serious issue. For me, it is a very cruel issue. I often don’t dare to think about it. The past 20 years, in view of the victims we have located, they were all just ordinary participants, whether they were students, workers, or residents. On May 16, 17, and 18 of 1989, there were a whole series of demonstrations, each with a million participants—this is the pride of our nation. It let the world see that the Chinese people had awoken. However, the June Fourth massacre that followed was indeed our nation’s tragedy. Those who bled and fought bravely in the massacre and ultimately died were all common people.

Of course, after the June Fourth massacre, there were many student leaders who were wanted by the government. Some of them succeeded in fleeing the country; some of them were captured and sentenced. After getting out of jail, some stayed in the country and some went into exile overseas. But in the list of victims and the disabled that we’ve located, can you find one major or minor student or worker leader? Why is this so? I feel this is because the masses boldly stood up, voluntarily and on their own initiative, to protect the safety of the students in the square at the most dangerous time and in the most dangerous place. I don’t know what the student leaders in the square thought. Before, when I was interviewed for Carma Hinton’s film The Gate of Heavenly Peace, I did not know about the statement [student leader] Chai Ling had made. Only after I saw The Gate of Heavenly Peace did I know that she had said, “We hoped for blood to flow like a river. Only in this way would the masses awaken.”11

I think that what she said was wrong. If she really said this, I think she should do some soul-searching and admit her mistake. This is because she also said, later [in the same interview], that she was different from others, that she wanted safety.12 People’s lives are of equal value; they should all be priceless. How can you hope for the blood to flow like a river? How can you explain saying such a thing? It is the executioner who does not hesitate to cause blood to flow like a river. You, who were involved in a democracy movement and unwilling to retreat, how could you be looking forward to a massacre?

Here, I don’t intend to blame those young, naïve student leaders. But after 20 years, I think at least we parents of the victims have the right to demand that they reflect on it.

I respect their choice. Now they can stay far away from politics; they can immerse themselves in the business world; they can serve the powerful and live a life of luxury and dissipation. They can also enjoy a happy and sweet family life. This is their choice. I respect their choice. But as for the tragedy that occurred 20 years ago, shouldn’t they bear some moral responsibility? This moral responsibility doesn’t mean they should do such and such today. But shouldn’t they at least reflect upon it? If they were wrong they should have the courage to admit it. So when we say “face June Fourth head-on,” we are saying that the authorities must face it head-on, the executioners must face it head-on, we victims must face it head-on, and those who were responsible in large and small ways must also face it head-on. This national suffering, the suffering after the massacre, it is we ordinary families, ordinary mothers and fathers who have to bear it every day. Is this fair? Each time I think of this, my heart aches.

When we say “face June Fourth head-on,” we are saying that the authorities must face it head-on, the executioners must face it head-on, we victims must face it head-on, and those who were responsible in large and small ways must also face it head-on.

I have always believed that killers are criminals. If the students had erroneous ideas, foolish ideas, even barbaric ideas, this was a mistake. Crime and mistake are different. But there must be some reflection. A mistake must be acknowledged. You can’t just hold your head up high and think that you’ve always been right. If you do this, then, on this count, what makes you different from the Communist Party? Doesn’t the Communist Party also hold its head up and think that it has always been right? From repression to turmoil to crisis to whatever, the Party is always right.

Li: What else can people overseas do to help you?

Ding: Since the early 1990s, those who have continued to donate to the victims’ families have all been ordinary overseas students. There actually aren’t many prominent personalities. Of course, there are also groups that donate.

Recently while being interviewed, I have deeply felt that the English-speaking world does not adequately understand June Fourth. In the third book put out by we families of June Fourth victims, In Search of the Victims of June Fourth,13 we have collected 50 search records and there is an article called “Fifteen Years of Grimness” (Fengyuruhui shiwu nian [风雨如晦十五年]). I think that if this book could be translated and published in English, it would help the Western media and readers to more deeply and fully understand the 1989 Democracy Movement and the June Fourth tragedy, as well as the Tiananmen Mothers.

This national suffering, the suffering after the massacre, it is we ordinary families, ordinary mothers and fathers who have to bear it every day. Is this fair?

You see, we who are old, weak, sick, and disabled, who do not have much time left, we as individuals no longer matter. We just want to use all our life energy to preserve these written materials for history.

Li: Thank you so much for being interviewed.

April 1, 2009

Translated by Human Rights in China

Notes

1. The annual plenary meetings of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Beijing.. ^

2. For text of the letter in Chinese original, see Human Rights in China [中国人权], “‘Tiananmen Muqin’ huyu ‘lianghui’ dui ‘liu-si’ jinxing diaocha” [“天安门母亲”呼吁“两会”对“六四”进行调查], February 26, 2009, http://gb.hrichina.org/gate/gb?url=hrichina.org/public/contents/16688; and in English translation, see Human Rights in China, “In Open Letter, Tiananmen Mothers Urge China’s Leaders to Investigate June 4,” February 26, 2009, http://www.hrichina.org/public/contents/135136. ^

3. Spokesperson of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. ^

4. Dai Qing (1941– ), is a journalist and activist for China-related issues. ^

5. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was set up by the post-apartheid government in 1995 to help deal with the violence and human rights abuses committed under the apartheid regime. See the official website of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, http://www.doj.gov.za/trc/. ^

6. Muxidi (木樨地), in Western Beijing, is the location where Ding Zilin’s son was shot dead on the night of June 3, 1989. ^

7. In spring 1989, Liu Xiaobo, then a visiting scholar at Columbia University, returned to Beijing to participate in the protest and was subsequently imprisoned for two years. ^

8. Wang Dan was a student leader of the 1989 Democracy Movement. He was arrested in July 1989, sentenced to four years’ imprisonment, and released (on medical parole) in 1993. ^

9. In 1989, Wang Juntao was deputy editor of Economics Weekly, a publication of the Beijing Social and Economic Sciences Research Institute. He was branded a “black hand” of the 1989 protest and sentenced to 13 years. He was released (on medical parole) in 1994 for health reasons. ^

10. Jiang Peikun, Ding Zilin’s husband. ^

11. Chai Ling’s statements, presented in The Gate of Heavenly Peace, were excerpted from herMay 28, 1989, taped interview with American journalist Philip Cunningham. ^

12. Chai Ling said, “I am different from others,” and “I want to survive.” Chinese transcript of the interview available at http://www.tsquare.tv/chinese/archives/chailin89528.html. ^

13. Ding Zilin, ed. [丁子霖], Xunfang liu-si shounanzhe [寻访六四受难者] (Hong Kong: Kaifang zazhi she, 2005 [香港: 开放出版社, 2005]). In Search of the Victims of June Fourth is the unofficial English title of this text. ^

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