Tiananmen Mother Denied Compensation

A Chinese court rejects a legal claim requesting compensation for victims of the 1989 crackdown.

Authorities in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan have turned down a landmark lawsuit in which relatives of victims of the 1989 military crackdown on the Tiananmen pro-democracy movement claimed compensation from the government.

The decision by the Sichuan Provincial High People's Court is the first official denial of a formal claim for compensation for those who died or were maimed at the hands of People's Liberation Army troops in Beijing.

The number of people killed on the night of June 3-4 remains a mystery. China’s official death toll is 241, including 36 students.

The crackdown set off a wave of condemnation across the globe, and for several years China was treated as a near-pariah, as Western governments offered asylum to student leaders fleeing into exile.

The case was brought by Tang Deying, whose son, Zhou Guocong, was detained while watching the demonstrations as a 15-year-old bystander and then beaten up in a detention center. He died in police custody.

Tang received 70,000 yuan (U.S. $11,000) in "hardship payments" from her local government in 2006—the first-ever relative of a Tiananmen victim to do so—but no official mention was made of her son's fate.

Tang then brought a formal compensation case in April this year for her son's death. Her case was dismissed on Monday during a phone call from the court's compensation committee, according to overseas media reports in Chinese.

The court official told her: "The state will not pay compensation in respect of the June 4 Tiananmen incident."

Sichuan-based rights activist Huang Qi, who has campaigned via his website Tianwang64 on behalf of victims of social injustice, said the court's decision was wrong.

"I was very shocked to hear the incorrect decision of the authorities on compensation for the victims of June 4," he said.

However, he said the fact that the case hadn't been ignored was a form of progress.

"Before, they would have hemmed and hawed about it, or even ignored it altogether, or suppressed it relentlessly," Huang said.

Call for reckoning

The 22nd anniversary earlier this year of the bloody military suppression of the student-led pro-democracy movement sparked growing calls for a public reckoning with the event, which has been blotted out of history books and media reports inside China.

Such anniversaries typically attract a strong security presence in and around Tiananmen Square, where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) used machine guns and tanks 20 years ago to wrest control of the city back from thousands of protesters encamped there.

Public discussion and memorial events have been banned since the crackdown by the ruling Communist Party, which has resisted mounting pressure to change its official verdict on the movement, which it says was a planned attempt at rebellion.

In 2009, a group of victims’ relatives known as the Tiananmen Mothers published a list of dozens of names garnered from eyewitness accounts and hospital records of those known to have died in the days after June 3.

A detailed map pinpointed the exact spots in central Beijing where the victims, many of them of college age, died or were picked up and taken to hospital.

Tiananmen Mothers' founder Ding Zilin, whose 17-year-old son died in the crackdown, has said that many of the families of the 250-some victims on the group's list are experiencing extreme economic hardship.

"The first priority is to solve the very real hardships which some of the victims' families are facing, including lack of pension," Huang said.

But he said pursuing class action claims for compensation would not be his group's aim.

"Under the current system in China, this isn't going to happen," he said. "We have to be realistic in rights work, and fight for the best interests of victims' families."

The 1989 crackdown was ordered by then supreme leader Deng Xiaoping and carried out after initial resistance from within the PLA itself.

Lt. Gen. Xu Qinxian served a five-year jail term for refusing to lead his 38th army troops into Beijing on the eve of the crackdown, which was completed by the 26th army.

Former student leaders have said that they were expecting the army to use water cannons and rubber bullets, and that no one thought they would use live ammunition and tanks until it was too late.

Reported by Xi Wang for RFA's Mandarin service and by Pan Jiaqing for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.