Ya Weilin, 73, hanged himself in a parking lot in Beijing on May 25. He was marking, as he had in one way or another for 23 years, the death of his son at the hands of the Chinese government and the People’s Liberation Army on the night of June 3, 1989. After 23 years of waiting, 23 years of petitioning and questioning, 23 years of searching for justice, Old Ya made his last dramatic statement without ever seeing justice done for the Tiananmen killings.

In video testimony Ya and his wife gave in 2004, he looked sad but determined. They had asked the Chinese government for answers to the questions any parent would want to know: “Why did you use real guns and bullets on your people? … Such a big China, such a big Chinese Communist Party, you killed my son, but you didn’t even say sorry.”

Since the Tiananmen killings, none of the questions raised by the heartbroken parents have been answered; nobody has been held accountable. On the contrary, immediately after the military crackdown, after the mass arrests and purges, the government launched an elaborate campaign to re-establish its legitimacy. An official version of the events was constructed and a massive effort undertaken to ensure this fiction would become the national memory.

The soldiers who fired on the unarmed civilians became “Guardians of the Republic.” A patriotic campaign was initiated, and the military crackdown was described as necessary for stability and prosperity and as against a Western conspiracy to divide and weaken China.

Today, Tiananmen remains a taboo topic, and any deviation from the official version is a forbidden memory inside the country. The official verdict, a “counter-revolutionary riot,” is unchanged. Exiles are turned back when they try to return home to attend a parent’s funeral, and scholars working on the topic are denied visas to China.

Ya and his wife had been fighting a war of memory against forgetting with the group Tiananmen Mothers, represented by Ding Zilin. Despite escalating government repression, Ding, who lost her 17-year-old son during the massacre, started a “one-woman campaign” to collect the names of those killed. The list includes victims such as Xiao Bo, a Beijing University lecturer, who was killed on his 27th birthday, leaving behind twin infant sons.

Ding’s work has truly been a mission impossible — the total of 16 names she collected by 1993 has grown to 202 in 2012, but it is far from complete. The true number is buried under 23 years of cover-up, deception, suppression and repression.

The list is not arranged alphabetically but by the date when information about a victim came to light. For example, according to Ding’s account, the authorities told Xiao’s wife to remain silent about her husband’s death — otherwise they would not allow her to stay in their campus housing. This young mother felt that she could not afford to be homeless with her babies, so she was invisible until Ding reached her in 1993 and added her husband as No. 8 on the list.

Ya’s son is No. 131 on Ding’s list. Before this young man became a number, he had a name: Ya Aiguo. Ai means “to love,” in Chinese, and guo means “country,” so the name Aiguo means “patriotism.” The student protesters of 1989 called their movement a “patriotic democracy movement,” which implied they had no intention of overthrowing the government — they were simply following the long-standing Confucian tradition of helping the rulers to improve.

As Sinologist Perry Link says, youhuanyishi, or worrying mentality, was pervasive among Chinese intellectuals in the 1980s. “Those who work to improve society, whether they succeed or not, represent the courageous ideal of the Chinese intellectual in its purest form.” Sadly, Link has been banned from going to China because of his work on Tiananmen.

Since the night Ya Aiguo and the others were killed, aiguo (patriotism) has been given a new meaning. While students of the Tiananmen generation were highly critical of their government and pushed for political reforms, later generations, under the effects of the patriotic campaign, tend not to distinguish between the regime and the nation, and they defend the Beijing government as if they are defending China itself. In 2008, before the Beijing Olympics, a letter signed by “a group of overseas Chinese students” described the Tiananmen Mothers as criminals who had raised their children to become running dogs of the United States.

There is something profound and revealing about a rising China that is afraid of these “running dogs” and their dead family members. Surveillance cameras were installed in graveyards near the tomb of Yuan Li, a graduate student killed in 1989. When Yuan’s father died in 2011, some Tiananmen Mothers were banned from attending this 94-year-old’s memorial.

Maybe the Tiananmen Mothers could help remind us of some common sense: The moment a government orders its army to fire on its own people, it loses its legitimacy; when a regime tells its people that human lives and human rights, human dignity and human decency can be “sacrificed” for the sake of higher goals such as national pride and economic development, it sends the message that any principle can be compromised for the ideals of “get rich” and “rising.”

Such mentality has become the root of major social and political problems in the post-Tiananmen China.

Ya Weilin’s death reminds us that if something like the Tiananmen movement ever occurs again, it will not be out of trust and passion like that of 1989; it will explode from the mix of anger, frustration and grievance.

Rowena Xiaoqing is a lecturer at Harvard University.

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