Louise Watt
and Isolda Morillo

BEIJING: Some went missing. Some lost their freedom. Some can’t escape the images inside their head, or the guilt they feel for surviving.

The June 4, 1989, military crackdown to end weeks-long student protests is a key moment in the history of Communist-ruled China for the outside world. Within China, it is all but erased. Even personal acts of memory are considered subversive.

While China’s economy, society and cities have transformed in the last 25 years, the demonstrators and their supporters are keen to remind the world that other things haven’t changed — that China’s political masters are still suppressing dissent and freedom of expression. They call for the Communist Party to stop hiding what happened on that bloody night in which an untold number of people were killed.

Wang Nan, 19, was about to finish high school. Out of curiosity, he took his camera and joined groups of people who had occupied the square in the heart of Beijing.

His mother, Zhang Xianling, spent days looking for him, only to be told through unofficial channels that Wang had been shot in the forehead by troops enforcing martial law. Medical students had tried to help him but couldn’t get him to a hospital because the area was sealed off. Zhang was told her son died at 3:30 a.m. on June 4 near the Great Hall of the People, the seat of China’s ceremonial legislature.

She keeps his letters, photos, student card and library card in a box in her living room, along with his death certificate and a photo, taken by one of the medical students, of his half-buried, plastic-wrapped body. She has never looked at the photo.

Now she is a member of the Tiananmen Mothers, a group that campaigns for the truth about the event to be revealed and for criminal and historical accountability.

Every year, Zhang’s freedom is restricted from the first weekend in April to the end of the June 4 anniversary to stop her from speaking out about the event. Sometimes, police drive her to the cemetery to visit her son’s grave to make sure no journalists or sympathizers accompany her.

“The scars will be in my heart forever,” said Zhang at her Beijing home.