BEIJING (Reuters) - Twenty years after her teenage son was shot by troops near Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Zhang Xianling is still trying to work out how many others died with him.
The Chinese government’s refusal to release an official figure for the number killed on June 4, 1989, is symbolic of its larger silence about the crackdown on student protesters.
China’s economy is now the third-largest in the world, an achievement that would have been unthinkable during the impoverished 1980s. But political reform has stalled, with the Party quick to stamp out any perceived challenge.
“China is on the road to democracy and the rule of law, but we don’t know how long that road will be ... Before, I thought I would see the day, now I am not so sure,” Zhang said in an interview in her comfortable living room, filled with books and her husband’s musical instruments.
“Now the economy is more developed. A lot of people just chase economic advancement, and don’t worry about politics.”
Zhang’s son, Wang Nan, was a cheerful, bespectacled 19-year-old when he left a note on the night of June 3 to say he was going to join friends on Tiananmen Square.
It took 10 days before his disinterred body was returned to his parents. His glasses were still on his face.
Zhang founded Tiananmen Mothers with another woman, Ding Zilin, whose 17-year-old son was also killed. The group is trying to make a list of the dead and urge for a reassessment of the verdict that the movement was a “counter-revolutionary” plot.
They recently confirmed one more name, bringing their list of victims to 195. Zhang believes they have only identified about one-tenth of those killed.
“Our greatest hope is to be able to openly say it was wrong for the army to fire on people. Civil society should be able to participate in an investigation,” Zhang said.
Their quest is impeded by police surveillance, the mistrust of families of the dead and the demolition of Beijing’s traditional alleyways, which has scattered neighbors and made families harder to track down.
The group issued a statement in the run-up to the 20th anniversary of the crackdown calling for an investigation, compensation and prosecution of those responsible.
After 20 years, the rush for wealth has become a bigger priority for most Chinese than dwelling on the past, or even pressing for greater freedoms, reformers like Zhang acknowledge.
But recent events have spawned a new generation of activist parents, seeking explanations for the deaths of thousands of schoolchildren during a devastating earthquake in Sichuan province a year ago, or seeking compensation for infants who died or were sickened after drinking contaminated milk powder.
Like the Tiananmen Mothers, those parents are being followed, monitored and detained, showing the Party is still nervous their activism could threaten its hold on power. June 4 is taboo for the Chinese media and on Sunday, the CNN feed in Beijing was cut when the Tiananmen movement was mentioned.
Six months before the anniversary, a group of Chinese intellectuals released “Charter 08,” calling for freedom of speech and multi-party elections, but such Tiananmen-era calls for reform are few and far between.
Memoires of purged Party chief Zhao Ziyang, in which he denies the 1989 student movement was a counter-revolutionary plot, sold out when they were published in Hong Kong last month.
“History has stopped at this point. Reform has stalled,” Bao Tong, Zhao’s aide and the highest-ranking official jailed in the crackdown, told Reuters from his home where he is monitored by police.
“We can’t explain this to our own students, and people overseas probably understand even less. We need the government to open up and truly discuss it,” said Bao.
“Twenty years is a long time. My granddaughter was one at the time, now she is 21. A whole generation has grown up.”
Zhang says her long fight to shed light on her son’s death taught her the duties of citizenship. And she refuses to give up.
“After 20 years, my opinion hasn’t changed. The students were protesting against corruption ... 20 years later, we can see they were right,” Zhang said.
“Corruption is everywhere. The students were prescient.”
(For a graphic of the events in 1989, click here )
Editing by Nick Macfie and Dean Yates