“The fate of those kids was even more pitiable than mine. If there is ever any investigation about victims of the June 4 Massacre, it will be impossible to count victims like this.” The mother of Yuan Li, a graduate student who was shot and killed during the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, was referring to the two huge black plastic bags packed with bodies waiting to be cremated, that she saw at the funeral home before her son’s ceremony.
In spring 1989 millions of Chinese took to the streets calling for reforms. The nationwide movement, highlighted by a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, ended on June 4 with the People’s Liberation Army firing on unarmed civilians. Over 200,000 soldiers, equipped with tanks and machine guns, participated in the lethal action.
On the surface, Tiananmen seems to be remote and irrelevant to the reality of a “Rising China,” but it remains a taboo subject in China today. The Chinese Communist Party prohibits any discussion, either in academic publications or popular forums. Even the actual number of deaths from the military crackdown remains unknown. The Tiananmen Mothers are prohibited from openly mourning family members who died in the massacre. When the father of Yuan Li died in 2011, some Tiananmen Mothers were banned from attending this 94-year-old's memorial.
Over the past thirty years, the Beijing regime set in motion the state machinery to erase or distort any memory of June 4. Despite escalating government repression, the Tiananmen Mothers group, cofounded by Professor Ding Zilin, has been fighting a war of memory against forgetting. Ding’s seventeen-year-old son, Jiang Jielian, was shot and killed during the massacre. Over the years, Ding spearheaded a campaign to collect information about the victims. Her book, In Search of the Victims of June 4, published in Hong Kong in 2005, documents all the information she was able to gather about the victims.
The list of victims is not arranged alphabetically, but by the date when the information came to light. For example, after Xiao Bo, a Peking University lecturer, was killed, the authorities warned Xiao Bo’s wife to remain silent about her husband’s death — otherwise she and her twin infant sons would not be allowed to remain in their campus housing. It was not until 1993, when Ding reached her, that her husband’s name was added to the list as number eight.
The sixteen names that Ding had collected by 1993 had grown to 202 by 2013. However, this list is far from complete. The true number is buried under thirty years of cover-up, deception, suppression and repression.
Among the victims that are not listed on Ding’s list, was a twenty-eight-year-old man as related in a true story told by Cui Weiping, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy and translator of Czech author Vaclav Havel’s The Power of the Powerless. When the boyfriend of this victim’s younger sister found out about the brother who had been killed, he broke up with her. The same thing happened when she later began a relationship with another boy. Such was the atmosphere of repression and intimidation in the aftermath of June 4. She and her mother decided that she would never again even mention her brother to anyone she planned to date. She is now married with a son, but her husband still has no idea about the death, or even the existence, of his brother-in-law.
Another victim that is not on Ding’s list is a young boy I learned about through an interview I had with someone I shall call Tony (not his real name). Tony was a college senior at Beijing University in 1989. On the night of June 3, 1989, he was walking along the Avenue of External Peace when several young people asked him to take a wounded young boy to the hospital before they rushed back to help others that were wounded. Tony took the bleeding young boy to the nearby Children’s Hospital where a doctor there pronounced the boy dead.
Tony kept returning to the hospital to see if anyone had come to claim the boy’s body. Judging from the sandals and shorts he was wearing, the youngster must have been a local child whose home was nearby — unlike the college students whose parents, far from Beijing, had no idea that their children were being killed, to say nothing of looking for their bodies. Seven days later, still no one had come to claim the child's body.
Tony was hoping to make arrangement for the boy’s funeral, but arrests were already happening throughout the city. The doctors knew that Tony was a student and warned him to leave and stay out of trouble. They ended up crying together. The dead boy’s body was eventually collected by the government, and most likely was cremated like those in the big black plastic bags described by Yuan Li’s mother mentioned above.
In the Tiananmen course that I teach, I often end the semester by asking my students what they would do if one day they could conduct an investigation about the Tiananmen Massacre. “Researching the official archives,” “speaking to the families of the victim,” “interviewing the doctors,” my energetic college students are always full of ideas. But none of those brilliant ideas would have been possible in a society where criticisms of the state are forbidden and when the critics are punished. Without essential elements such as free speech and a free press, the development of a vital civil society in China will continue to be blocked.
Now, on the thirtieth anniversary of the June 4 Massacre is the time in China when the government intensifies its control and puts citizens who wish to commemorate the events under tight and unremitting surveillance. But we, citizens of the world, are going to light candles in every corner of the globe to remember those young lives that were violently cut short in 1989, and to remind us yet again that freedom is not free. It is our responsibility to continue to seek truth and justice for the victims of 1989. And one day we are going to honor them in a monument in Tiananmen Square, with names, in alphabetical order, in a democratic China.
The views, opinions, and thoughts expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of ISPI