Dr. Rowena Xiaoqing He, a lecturer at Harvard University, teaches a course on Tiananmen in History and Memory.
Ya Weilin, 73, hanged himself in an empty parking lot in Beijing on May 25. He was marking, as he had in one way or another for 23 years, the death of his son at the hands of the Chinese government and the People’s Liberation Army on the night of June 3, 1989. After 23 years of waiting, 23 years of petitioning and questioning, 23 years of searching for justice, Old Ya made his last dramatic statement without ever seeing justice done for the Tiananmen massacre.
In video testimony Ya and his wife gave in 2004, he looked sad but determined. They had asked the Chinese government for answers to the questions any parent would want to know: “Why did you use real guns and bullets on your people?. . . Such a big China, such a big Chinese Communist Party, you killed my son, but you didn’t even say sorry.”
Since the Tiananmen massacre, none of the questions raised by the heartbroken parents have been answered; nobody has been held accountable. On the contrary, immediately after the military crackdown, after the mass arrests and purges, the government launched an elaborate campaign to reestablish its legitimacy. An official version of the events was constructed and a massive effort undertaken to ensure this fiction would become the national memory. The soldiers who fired on the unarmed civilians became “Guardians of the Republic.” A patriotic campaign was initiated, and the military crackdown was described as necessary for stability and prosperity and as against a Western conspiracy to divide and weaken China.
Today, Tiananmen remains a taboo topic, and any deviation from the official version is a forbidden memory inside the country. The official verdict — a “counter-revolutionary riot” — is unchanged. The exiles are turned back when they try to return home to attend a parent’s funeral, and scholars working on the topic are denied visas to China.
Ya and his wife had been fighting a war of memory against forgetting with the group Tiananmen Mothers, represented by Ding Zilin. Despite escalating government repression, Ding, who lost her 17-year-old son during the massacre, started a “one-woman campaign” to collect the names of those killed. The list includes victims such as Xiao Bo, a Beijing University lecturer, who was killed on his 27th birthday, leaving behind twin infant sons.
Ding’s work has truly been a mission impossible — the total of 16 names she collected by 1993 has grown to 202 in 2012, but it is far from complete. The true number is buried under 23 years of cover-up, deception, suppression and repression.
The list is not arranged alphabetically but by the date when information about a victim came to light. For example, according to Ding’s account, the authorities told Xiao’s wife to remain silent about her husband’s death — otherwise they would not allow her to stay in their campus housing. This young mother felt that she could not afford to be homeless with her babies, so she was invisible until Ding reached her in 1993 and added her husband as No. 8 on the list.