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Operating with impunity

International | Ten years ago this month, student demonstrators at Tiananmen Square challenged the communist government and lost. After seven weeks of peaceful protests in the heart of Beijing, the People's Liberation Army moved against the unarmed civilians. Thousands were injured and at least 300 killed, say eyewitnesses. But there has been no official government accounting, no international criminal tribunal, no multinational investigation, no apology. Over that decade, the communist-led government in China kept its seat on the UN Security Council, expanded trade with the United States and other Western democracies, and sits poised to become a military giant and member of the World Trade Organization. Ten years later, family members and survivors of that bloody weekend still ask, What price freedom?

Issue: "Quayle's presidential bid," June 19, 1999

Rid a cause of its vantage-ground and you will empty it of meaning. After all, what's a tea party without Boston Harbor, or D-Day without the beaches of Normandy? Chinese authorities put that kind of theorizing into practice last week, divorcing the events of June 1989 from Tiananmen Square itself. The move to deny the moment of its venue actually began seven months ago, when officials closed off Tiananmen Square for construction. They blocked the site, a broad concrete expanse in the heart of the city, with a wall of corrugated metal. Workers have been resurfacing the square and making other renovations, the story goes, in preparation for the republic's 50th anniversary on October 1. A clock is ticking down the minutes until Macau is returned to China at year's end, another important 1999 milestone. Thousands were able to file through Chairman Mao's Mausoleum at the south end of the square, recently reopened to the public. Otherwise, all was quiet in the city center. Yet the anniversary did not portend a holiday. Police escorted away scarce protesters who showed up at Tiananmen Gate. Authorities stifled mention of the democracy movement in the state-run press. Further, the Beijing Security Bureau shut down the broadcast signal for CNN. The cable news network continued to air in other Chinese cities, but was ordered off the air from June 1 until June 8 in the capital. Relatives were marked, too. Two policemen parked themselves in chairs near the entrance to the apartment of Ding Zilin and Jiang Peikun, retired professors whose 17-year-old son was killed in the crackdown. Other family survivors reported phone lines cut and visitors turned away from their homes. At gravesites for the slain, family and friends were tailed by security officers. But the real stuff of history does not live in graveyards and concrete slabs. For China's pro-democracy forces and those who support them, the events of June 3 and 4, 1989, now form a litany all their own. Seven weeks of peaceful protests at Tiananmen, organized by students from Peking University (now Beijing University)-where demonstrators hoisted Statue of Liberty replicas and freedom slogans above a swelling crowd that totaled nearly a million-ended when then-prime minister Li Peng declared martial law. He sent tanks and soldiers into the square. Without warning, the tanks crushed demonstrators, and soldiers fired live ammunition into the fleeing crowd. Overnight, said New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristoff, Beijing went from the cusp of exhilarating reforms to "a bloodstained dungeon." In 1997, during a Washington summit, Chinese leader Jiang Zemin declared, "The political disturbance that occurred at the turn of spring and summer in 1989 seriously disrupted social stability and jeopardized state security." He called the killing of students "necessary measures." However subdued the 10th anniversary celebration in Beijing was by contrast to the events themselves, its significance abroad has been amplified over the years. In Hong Kong, nearly 50,000 people turned out for a candlelight vigil marking the Tiananmen massacre. Washington, New York, and Los Angeles hosted thousands in candlelight vigils, as did cities from London to Sydney. Less noticed, student activists and family members took the cause beyond memorializing. In New York, family members led by Ding Zilin announced that they would pursue legal action against the Chinese government for the 1989 crackdown. The families are seeking indictments against all Chinese officials responsible for the killings and injuries. With the help of Human Rights in China, a New York-based advocacy group headed by two dissidents who were jailed after Tiananmen, the families will file their case with the International Court of Justice in The Hague, as well as attempt to push it through Chinese courts. The charges will focus on Li Peng, who is now chairman of the Chinese parliament and the only surviving high-ranking official. He was prime minister during the demonstrations and ordered martial law to end the Tiananmen demonstrations. Realizing that the time for justice is running down, the group hopes to force at least a final accounting from all officials connected with the crackdown. To that end, Ding Zilin and others have compiled the most detailed list of Tiananmen victims, killed, injured, or jailed. It includes 155 dead and 65 wounded, ranging in age from 9 years old to 61. Most are students, aged 17 to 20. For the 10th anniversary, the victims took the further step of preparing detailed testimonies on the circumstances surrounding the death of 24 individuals, along with three victims who were permanently disabled by their injuries. "I don't know if there is a word in English to convey the meaning of the Chinese word nao," said the 62-year-old Ding Zilin, referring to the word that means "to suffer constantly." "But I think for myself, and for the other mothers, this word is the most accurate." Ding Zilin said she tried to end her own life six times after her 17-year-old son, Jiang Jielian, was shot by PLA soldiers June 4. She organized her despair into something more constructive late in 1989, after discovering another family who also lost a son during the crackdown. With official pronouncements denying the deaths and many family members under pressure not to reveal their losses, Ding Zilin was nevertheless able to locate 150 families whose son or daughter had been killed. What is remarkable about her campaign is that Ding Zilin still lives in Beijing with her husband, and invites increased pressure from authorities, even arrest, with each public pronouncement. She delivered a statement at the June 1 press conference in New York via telephone hook-up, and took questions from Western reporters. Likewise, Bao Tong, a former government official, also delivered a message at the press conference, although he served seven years in prison for opposing the Tiananmen crackdown and is essentially under house arrest in Beijing. "Using this suffering as a starting point, I have started to stand up again," Ding Zilin told CNN. "And up until now, we haven't yet found one who was a 'thug' as the government said." Ding Zilin describes her son and others at Tiananmen Square as "hot-blooded youths, and citizens of Beijing." All students and intellectuals, she said, they were up against an armed military enforcing martial law, and "simply wanted to persuade the military not to enter the city, and not to use force against the people." The student spirit is not what it was 10 years ago. Trade and the economy have been the revolution of the '90s. At Beijing University, the 10th anniversary passed calmly. The school's "triangle," where 10 years ago student activists posted anti-corruption and pro-democracy signs, on this June 4 was covered with advertisements and weekend party announcements. A billboard nearby exhibited pictures of the students' protests of four weeks earlier, after NATO's bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Saying the war for Kosovo displays "the true face of Western democracy and human rights," the nation's newspapers have constantly attacked what they call American hegemony. Many students are concerned with their individual futures, which for many is graduate school in the United States and a lucrative job. They are not interested in starting a revolution over democracy or human rights, and seem rather apathetic about the events of 10 years ago. "Students are more pragmatic these days," said Lu Jian, who was a Beijing University student 10 years ago. "They're only concerned with making money." Harry Wu, a dissident and labor activist, was a newly minted American citizen, just signed on as a fellow by the Hoover Institute, when the Tiananmen massacre took place. He went to the Chinese consulate in San Francisco to protest the crackdown, a gesture he called "very ordinary." "I was quiet, a small potato with $40 in my pocket, an intellectual," he told WORLD. Outrage over Tiananmen prompted Harry Wu to later make his way back to China, documenting labor camp abuses and forced labor in the manufacture of goods bound for America. In 1995 he was arrested during one of those clandestine excursions and spent two months in prison, even though he was an American citizen. He is on a wanted list in China along with many of the Tiananmen leaders. He, too, is frustrated by apathy in his homeland. "Because money makes the situation so different, the Tiananmen massacre is fading away," he said. But he also faults Western leaders, including both the Bush and Clinton administrations, who have allowed the official Beijing alibi-the crackdown was necessary to promote stability and squelch dissent-to go unchallenged. To do otherwise, he says, would destabilize U.S.-China trade and could rock China's cheap labor force. "If we want to fight against tyranny, we have to fight against forgetting," he said.

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