The Magazine

Let a Hundred Flowers Be Crushed

The precarious lives of China's dissidents.

Dec 31, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 16 • By ELLEN BORK
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On its face, the August letter is quite bold. It condemned human rights abuses and showed the signers have no illusions that merely hosting the games will moderate the behavior of China's Communist party rulers. "We, as citizens of the People's Republic of China, ought to be feeling pride in our country's glory in hosting the Games, whose purposes include the symbolization of peace, friendship, and fairness in the world community.  .  .  .  Instead we feel disappointment and doubt as we witness the continuing systematic denial of the human rights of our fellow citizens even while--and sometimes because--Olympic preparations are moving forward."

Yet the letter--reported around the world and relayed back into China via Chinese language websites monitored by the regime--stopped short of calling for a boycott of the Olympic games, which the signers thought would trigger a harsh reaction from the government. The letter also asked for the creation of an independent group to monitor preparations for the Olympics. The dissidents know, however, that if they actually set up such an independent group, it would be crushed.

The letter also did not mention the Tiananmen massacre, despite the pall it still casts over China. In the days after the letter's release, I was able to visit Ding and her husband, both retired professors in their early 70s. After their 17-year-old son was killed, Ding began gathering information about what happened the night of the Tiananmen massacre. She started by collecting the names of the victims. Despite official harassment, she interviewed relatives of the victims to document their deaths and counter the official denial; one man told her that, looking for his brother at a hospital morgue, he was shown just a hand. Ding and another mother began speaking to foreign reporters about their children. Other relatives joined their efforts. They became the Tiananmen Mothers, a group of nearly 200. Now they themselves are getting old and beginning to die.

Several years ago, security officials came to Ding and told her they wouldn't post agents at her building if she promised not to meet with foreigners and journalists at home. She refused. It was their job to keep people away, she said. If visitors made it to her apartment, she would be a good hostess. She gave me tea. Even a few months ago, she said, it would not have been possible to meet her at home, but the authorities "have put on their masks" for the Olympics. She expects a few months of relative latitude before things tighten up for the next June 4 anniversary, then the games. The line has moved, for a time. It will move back.

We talked about the importance of memory and efforts made by people in other countries to accept history, like the German artist who installs small plaques in the sidewalk outside addresses from which Jews were deported to death camps. I told Ding about two exiled Iranian sisters, Roya and Ladan Boroumand, who have created a database of human rights violations as an online memorial to victims of the Islamic revolution. Their father was assassinated in Paris for his opposition to the Khomeini regime. Ding's face drew taut and she made a sound of empathy.

After her son was killed, Ding Zilin went to buy a cake to mark his birthday. A security officer followed her. They waited in silence until the clerk brought out the cake. The icing read, "We miss you." The agent's eyes became wet with tears.

I asked Ding if she would show me where her son was killed. She went to another room to get her glasses. She returned and drew a small circle on my tourist map at an intersection about four miles from the square. Most of the victims were killed on the outskirts as troops rolled in to secure the city. "Muxidi," she said. He was shot in the back while trying to take cover in the entrance to the Muxidi subway stop.

The Tiananmen massacre and the ensuing political crackdown also took a toll on Pu Zhiqian, a lawyer who works on politically sensitive cases. His participation in the protests at Tiananmen as a youth ruined his chances for an academic career. He says he became a lawyer because he couldn't do anything else. Pu is a broad shouldered man with a crew cut who carries his own tea leaves and thermos in a crocheted bag. "Sometimes I forget I am a lawyer," he says. "I go a little too far.  .  .  .  I feel just as if I was accused."

In 2004, Pu defended two writers who had been sued for libel by a local party official for portraying local party officials in Anhui province as thugs. In an emotional, free-wheeling courtroom argument, Pu cited New York Times v. Sullivan, a landmark American libel case, and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The case has still not been decided, which in a legal system overseen by the Communist party counts as something of a victory.