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Accident before Daybreak

By Johnny Erling
Ein Bild von Johnny Erling

A macabre funeral party made its way to Beijing’s West Mountains. State security officials escorted the small group of relatives who went to Wan’an Cemetery on June 4 last year. They were commemorating their children and decorating their graves there with flowers. The police did not let them out of their sight.

Duan Changlong’s mother came in a wheelchair. His memorial stone reads, “He was a student of chemistry at Tsinghua University, born in 1984. He was born on October 19, 1965, and died on June 4th, 1989.” Instead of the word “die,” the parents chose the written term “Yu Nan” (遇难) for “met with an accident.” Before that, they wrote “Ling Cheng” (凌晨 – at dawn) as the time of his death: “Accidentally before dawn.”

Gedenkstein vom Studenten Duan Changlong. Eines der acht Gräber für die Opfer des Tiananmen-Massakers.
“Accidentally killed before dawn” is inscribed on the memorial stone for student Duan Changlong, who died on June 4th, 1989. One of eight graves for the victims of the Tiananmen Massacre, whose urns lie buried in Beijing’s Wan’an Cemetery.

Duan was hit by bullets shortly after midnight as army units shot their way through the middle of the capital, aiming to clear Tiananmen Square, which was occupied by demonstrating students. Unlike many hundreds of other victims that night, Duan was given a grave. His distinguished family was allowed to bury the urn and place a memorial stone for him, as were the relatives of seven others killed. Every year on June 4th, their relatives, who have joined the self-organized survivors’ initiative of the “Tiananmen Mothers,” visit the eight graves.

I discovered it by chance in the 1990s. Wan’an is less than an hour’s drive west on the edge of the Xiangshan Mountains. It is one of the oldest and most extensive cemeteries in Beijing, where there is also a tomb for a hero of the revolution, Li Dazhao, the co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party who died in 1927. School classes make a pilgrimage there without even suspecting who else lies in the cemetery.

What happened to the martyrs of the democracy movement could only be cautiously hinted at by their parents. On the memorial stone to Yuan Li, they wrote as an obituary: “He was not 30 years old when he was suddenly snatched from this world/Our star of hope is extinguished/The Lord of Heaven is unjust/He robbed a strong boy, but let us old ones live/Born and died in unhappy times/Our hearts burst, all cheerfulness fled.” In 1960, her son was born, in the “unfortunate times” of the famine following Mao’s Great Leap Forward campaign.

Hao Zhijing’s parents also wrote under his date of death, June 3rd, a time of exactly when he died: “Wu Ye”(午夜) – China’s word for midnight. They dedicate the lines to him, “For 30 years we raised you. Just when you were about to use your strength for the four modernizations of our country, you died. Why does lightning strike in broad daylight?”

How many people died on the night of June 4th is considered a state secret by Beijing. Initially, the regime provided information: on June 6th, 1989, state spokesman Yuan Mu said 5,000 soldiers and 2,000 civilians were injured and about 300 people were killed, including 23 students. In late June, Beijing’s chief mayor corrected: ten soldiers and 200 civilian casualties died. Among them, he said, were 36 students. After that, the authorities remained silent.

All the dead were quickly cremated. Parents who could identify their child were allowed to take the urn home. One-time professor Ding Zilin, whose 17-year-old son Jiang Jielan was shot, keeps it on a small altar in her apartment. Ding founded a gathering movement for relatives in 1990, calling them the “Tiananmen Mothers.” More and more bereaved families contacted her. In 1995, despite all the persecution and harassment from the authorities, they began writing annual letters to the government. They demanded an “independent and just” investigation of the events, clarification of every death, compensation and legal prosecution of those responsible.

This week the “Tiananmen Mothers” published another open letter: “32 years have passed. We see no willingness on the part of the official authorities to clarify the bloody incident. The June 1989 massacre remains a taboo.” Again they ask: “How many people were killed, how many injured?” Because all information about it is blocked, they say, “many young people today don’t know about the massacre, or don’t believe it happened.”

The mothers are appealing to Party leader Xi Jinping, who is busy preparing pompous celebrations for the Party’s 100th birthday on July 1st, to live up to his words that the Party must serve the good of the people. “Since the late 1990s, we have called on the government to sit down with us for a peaceful dialogue on all issues related to the ‘June Fourth’ tragedy to find solutions according to the law.” 122 bereaved families signed the letter. Below it is a note that 62 of the original members have since died.

On their website, the “Tiananmen Mothers” have created a virtual cemetery. There they document the names of 202 victims of June 4, whose deaths have been confirmed by at least two witnesses. The eight names of the graves from Wan’an Cemetery are also among them.

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