Chilling treatment of mums desperate for justice after Tiananmen Square massacre

Their hair maybe greying now and their bodies frail, but to the Chinese government this week, this group of elderly pensioners are public enemy number one.

If anything is evidence of the country’s repressive, surveillance state, it is the treatment of the Tiananmen Mothers, a group of octogenarians whose loved ones, in most cases their children, were murdered in the Tiananmen Square massacre 30 years ago.

Since the Communist Party ’s brutal military crackdown in Bejing’s infamous Square on June 3, 1989, and into the early hours of the following day, its bloody solution to 50 days of peaceful, pro-democracy protests , these grief-stricken ‘Mothers’ have been calling for it to accept accountability for what highest estimates claim was as many as 10,000 murders.

Yet the authorities will not even release an official toll, or sanction public commemoration of the event.

Weeks ahead of the anniversary, many of the Mothers are stripped of freedom, some even detained “in handcuffs”, to stop them drawing attention to an episode the authorities want erased from history to eradicate any chance of it stirring dissent today.

This year, in order to ensure their voices were heard before the lockdown, they released an open letter months ago to the organisation Human Rights In China.

Ding Zilin, 82, one of the group’s founders, whose son, 17-year-old student Jiang Jielian, was shot dead as he joined non-violent protesters on the streets, paints a disturbing picture.

Believed to be writing on behalf of the group, she said: “The authorities send carloads of agents to stand guard in front of our homes and forbid us to go out or receive guests freely whenever a politically sensitive period rolls around.

“Even when they do let us leave our homes, there are police officers, or plainclothes agents, and vehicles on our tail.

“Our phones are tapped; our computers are hacked. Some of us even have surveillance cameras installed in and outside our homes.

“And some have been more than once called in by the police, put under residential surveillance and/or criminal detention, and even taken to the detention centre in handcuffs.”

Many of the group’s members have been impossible to reach ahead of the 30-year anniversary because they are so closely guarded.

On 20 May, Ding was ordered by police to leave her home in Beijing and travel more than 1,100km to her hometown Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, to keep her out of the city.

It is a grave situation in the world’s second largest economy, which can only add weight to allegations the expansion of Chinese tech giant Huawei here in the UK, could be a government-driven ploy to secretly gather data on British residents through 5G infrastructure – allegations the company has strongly denied.

Sophie Richardson, a spokesperson for Human Rights Watch said: “Three decades after killing untold peaceful protestors, the fact President Xi’s government—the world’s second largest economy, the world’s largest standing army, a P5 member state, and a signatory to multiple international human rights instruments – cannot tolerate peaceful observation of this sombre occasion, let alone hope for any accountability, should cause alarm around the world.

“If the Tiananmen Mothers – a tiny handful of octogenarians who simply want the truth about what happened to their loved ones – cannot hope for a modicum of justice, what can anyone really expect from the Chinese government?”

The most detailed access to the Mothers has been through the open letter Ding managed to pen on behalf of their 127 members in March, released to human rights groups before the most brutal lockdown began.

Calling the group the “guardians of the souls of the June Fourth martyrs”, she describes how ageing members are dying heartbroken because they have not been able to win justice for their loved ones.

One member, Mr. Ya Weilin, whose son Ya Aiguo was killed, committed suicide seven years ago because of his grief.

She said: “Our tears are drained, our strength is exhausted, and our hearts are shattered.

“All our efforts to clear your names have yet to be successful. We are filled with guilt and remorse, and unbearable grief.”

She adds: “The massacre took place under the glare of the whole world.

“For years, many streets and alleys of Beijing were riddled with bullet holes and stained with blood.

“Thirty years later, while the criminal evidence has been covered up by the facade of “prosperity” made up of towering buildings and clustering overpasses, the hard facts of the massacre are etched into history.”

It was the death of former Communist Party leader, Hu Yaobang, on April 15 1989, which provided the spark for the pro-democracy protests.

He had worked for reform, and his loss prompted thousands to march through Bejing.

On May 13, more than 100 students began a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square. A later rally drew 1.2 million people, prompting martial law.

By June 3, the government military were combing the streets killing demonstrators and civilians. By 1am they reached the square.

Tiananmen means ‘gate of heavenly peace’; the irony is acute.

Two years ago a formerly classified British diplomatic cable was released, alleging at least 10,000 were killed there.

It also gave horrifying detail, stating wounded female students were bayoneted, and human remains were “hosed down the drains”.

The iconic ‘tank man’ may have survived, but many more were flattened by the tanks the government sent in.

Since forming in 1995, the Tiananmen Mothers have sent open letters to the annual sessions of China’s Two Congresses—meetings of the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference—and the country’s leaders.

These have demanded “truth, compensation, and accountability.”

They want a national day of mourning each year, the erection of monuments and cemeteries, and a state funeral for the victims.

“So that the national trauma will not be forgotten and the June Fourth tragedy will not be repeated,” Ding writes.

But the group says it never receives a response.

“They have pretended not to hear and have never paid any attention,” she said.

“All we have received in return for our goodwill and sincerity is ever harsher control on us family members of the victims by public security, domestic security, and national security agents.”

Now, the Tiananmen Mothers, with Human Rights in China (HRIC), have documented 202 individuals who were killed in the massacre, in their Unforgotten project.

Through interviews with families, it puts faces and human stories to the massacre Bejing hopes will die in the national consciousness when this elderly group does.

But although old, the Tiananmen Mothers aren’t prepared to give up.

“What we are steadfastly holding out for is simply the long overdue justice,” said Ding.

  • For more information on the Unforgotten project visit Human Rights In China at

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