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"Tell the truth, never forget, search for justice, awaken consciousness"
CHINA, 1936

Ding Zilin was a professor of philosophy at the University of Renmin in Peking until 1991. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 and received the Vasyl Stus “Freedom to Write” award in 2007.

“Tell the truth, never forget, search for justice, awaken consciousness.” This is the slogan of “The Mothers of Tiananmen”, an organization of women who have held onto their quest for justice since their children were assassinated by Chinese troops in Peking on the evening of the 4th of June, 1989.

An official version of this story has been invented by the Chinese government to justify the massacre that took place in Tiananmen Square and, which describes the young people as “scoundrels” and members of a counter-revolutionary revolt. The repression of the peaceful protests staged in 1989 resulted in hundreds of deaths and thousands injured. But the crimes did not stop there: the government silenced the families of the disappeared peoples through a policy of denial and intimidation in the hope that the memory of the events would subside over time.

Ding Zilin is the mother of one of those “scoundrels” and the first to search for other parents in the country, who were victims of the same fate. Their shared pain gave them the strength to keep going and to break the silence. Since then, Ding has continued to look for, and found, other families in Peking, who have had similar experiences, so that the exact number of victims might be known. In June 2006, the list identified 186 people who were killed by government troops.The list and other facts about the events were published in Hong Kong in a book entitled, “Looking for the June 4th Victims,” and which won the Vasyl Stus “Freedom to Write” award in 2007.

In its search for justice, the Mothers of Tiananmen ask that an independent investigation be organized to look into the events of June 4th, that the conclusions be published and that the identities of those killed be revealed. They also request that the government explain the circumstances in which their children were killed and that
they provide compensation for the families of the victims. The Mothers of Tiananmen also defend their right to criticize the politicians responsible for the massacre. These three requests have repeatedly been made of the Chinese government, formally and peacefully, but to little effect.

The Mothers of Tiananmen persist in their work despite the attempts of the government to “handle” each case individually. “The justice we seek is based on the rights and dignity of all human beings. It cannot be bought. For this reason we persist and will continue to do so,” says Ding.

The battle waged by Ding and her organization has not waned despite the persistent obstacles and the fact that their scope of action is increasingly limited due to government repression. Since 1991, the Chinese authorities have kept Ding and her husband, both professors at the University of Renmin in Peking, under surveillance. Ding was forced to stop teaching classes and to publish her research and was eventually expelled from the party. Ding saw no other option other than to resign. A few years later, her husband was also forced to resign from teaching. During this period, they were both detained and placed in protective custody for 40 days. However, if Ding has not thrown in the towel neither has the Chinese government. In the last ten years, the government has increased its restrictions on their rights and freedom. Since the year 2000, Ding and her husband have been under 24-hour surveillance and their bank account has been frozen (it held donations for humanitarian activities benefiting the victims of June 4th).  In 2004, Ding and some of the other mothers were imprisoned a few days before the anniversary of the 4th of June. “Not only can they not stop us, but their attempt to do so only makes us more determined,” declares Ding in the face of the intimidation and the extreme repression that have increased in intensity over the years.

Jian Jielan, Ding’s son, was only 17 years old when he got shot in the heart on the night of the 4th of June, 1989. A few hours before he left the house, his mother tried to persuade him not to go by saying that it was too late to do anything, to which her son responded, “the most important thing isn’t action, it is participation.” The students protested in this way against government corruption. They asked the government for dialogue but they were met with silence—and death.

Ding’s fight continues to the present day and remains unchanged. She is determined to go beyond the demand for the recognition of the victims of the 4th of June and their right to reparations. She seeks to transform a society where unlawful acts go unquestioned and democracy is conspicuous by its absence. The feeling of discontent that is the result of the corruption and social injustice has meant that popular revolts are on the rise in China.  Says Ding, “ I believe that only a just and equitable solution to the events of the 4th of June will stop the corruption. China needs change that is gradual and peaceful. Only in this way can our society remain stable. Social stability will never be an outcome of a trigger happy government, that wields inordinate power and influence and that deliberately forgets the past.”

Ding is more than 70 years old and her health is fragile, but she is hopeful about the future: “Although those young people lost their lives, I believe that history will not forget their dedication.”