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Reflections from a friend of China

July 23, 2000

Lois Wheeler Snow describes her experiences during her recent visit to Beijing and explains why she has become an ardent supporter of the Tiananmen Mothers’ campaign for justice.






For years after my first visit to China in 1970 with my husband Edgar Snow, and following his death in 1972, I went frequently to the country he had lived in, worked in, written about - and loved. I, too, embraced its peoples, relished its beauties and gave full recognition to the great changes made since 1949, when China stood up against oppression, corruption and the misuse of power. Because of the esteem given the name of Snow, I enjoyed unusual privileges in travel and in the people I met - from peasants who had been Long Marchers to the wives and families of some of China’s highest leaders.

June 1989 came as an enormous shock. As I watched the violent scenes of Tiananmen on television, as I listened to eyewitness accounts from people who had been there, I resolved not to return until the Chinese government made amends, released the imprisoned and prosecuted those responsible for the massacre.

Last April, eleven years after the brutality of Tiananmen, I returned. I did so because of Ding Zilin, the mother of 17-year-old Jiang Jielian who was struck down by a bullet fired by Chinese military troops as they rolled into Beijing, deliberately shooting into crowds of unarmed Chinese citizens. Ding Zilin has had the courage and determination, in spite of government threats and police surveillance, to launch and continue a campaign to hunt for and record the names of those killed or wounded during the government-instigated slaughter. With incredible bravery, she has broken through much of the fear and isolation imposed upon other victims’ families. Together, moved by their losses—which are ignored or denied by the Chinese government—they seek an open, thorough, legal investigation of June Fourth, the prosecution of those who ordered the killings and, I quote the Tiananmen Mothers, “an end to the cycle of impunity which has allowed the perpetrators of serious violations of human rights to go unpunished in China.” Her dedication and perseverance has gained her wide admiration, respect and support; I wanted to add mine - personally, openly, publicly.

I went to China as a mother with her son to express friendship and support to a mother who had lost her son. And through Ding Zilin, I wanted to give solace to the mothers and families of all those being punished by a vindictive government for having lost loved ones in the violence of that bloody June. In a public statement issued to the international press on our arrival in Beijing, I presented my visit as an act undertaken in the spirit of the friendship my husband and I have always had for China and the valiant Chinese people. I explained that I came with an earnest public appeal to the Chinese authorities to permit Ding Zilin to receive and distribute the funds that have been donated to her as humanitarian assistance for the bereaved families, some of whom cannot even afford to pay their children’s school fees. I stated I had brought with me a modest contribution to this end from my own family and friends, and that in making the money available, we joined others who reach out to a remarkable woman and to those who support and are supported by her courageous efforts to ease their plight.

So much for good intentions and friendship. The meeting was not to be; friendship became intimidation. There was no offer from the authorities to discuss my request; there were no inquiries by the Chinese press. Instead, from the moment we left our Beijing hotel to be driven in a hired car to the People’s University, where we expected to be met by Ding Zilin, we were followed by a car and two motorcycles. As we stopped at the front gate of the university, our car was blocked by the car that had followed us. Plainclothes police jumped out, and we were filmed from briefcases which we discovered contained concealed video cameras. It was an ugly scene, one I could have imagined only in a third-rate spy film. The presence of many members of the foreign press was comforting. For the first time in my life I personally got a taste of what it might be like to be a Chinese citizen up against the “rules and regulations” arbitrarily imposed upon them by their all-seeing government.

Su Bingxian writes of her meeting with us in lieu of Ding Zilin. This feisty, bright-eyed woman served as a fine intermediary, though even her explanations and pleadings with the campus guards came to no avail. We were told only a higher authority than that at the university could grant us permission to enter. It was for this reason that I appealed to the Prime Minister. I cannot fault him specifically for lack of an answer; he may not have been made aware of my request. However, if one can call it a response, one came in the detention of Su Bingxian as she attempted to deliver a copy of my book, Edgar Snow’s China, to Ding Zilin the following day.

At that same time, my son and I and the close family friend who had accompanied us to China were being stealthily filmed as we paid a brief visit to my husband’s grave at Beijing University. Standing before the stone on which is inscribed “Edgar Snow, American friend of the Chinese people,” we became aware of a man seated on a nearby bench ostensibly reading a newspaper, but in actuality filming us through a lens in the briefcase on his knees. When our companion raised her camera and took a photo, he jumped up and ran away, his free hand shielding his face. This, too, was an ugly intrusion, as was a later consequence of the incident. Our friend’s suitcase, which contained her camera and film, was not at the baggage claim when we arrived home, and it has never been found. The inevitable conclusion is that the security police seized her suitcase, her clothes, her personal effects and her camera rather than simply removing the film.

Su Bingxian’s 24-hour ordeal weighed heavily on my conscience. I had had no thought of bringing harm to any of these brave Chinese citizens. Before leaving Beijing and while Mrs. Su was still in detention, I made a public statement notifying the Chinese authorities that if such harassment continued, I might consider the appropriateness of leaving Edgar Snow’s ashes in China. The possibility remains. I have promised support to Ding Zilin, Su Bingxian and the other Tiananmen Mothers who are fighting for recognition of their tragic losses by legally, openly confronting the authorities. Like the mothers of the disappeared in Argentina, they demand accountability and justice for their dead and wounded and for the wrongfully imprisoned.

My return to China was filled with stress, anxiety and disappointment, but it lasted only four days. For Ding Zilin, Su Bingxian and the other mothers and families; for those who have been given long prison sentences for collecting facts about Tiananmen - termed the crime of “stealing state secrets”; for those who were arrested that June Fourth and afterwards; and for those who are still in prison or exile, the stress, anxiety and disappointment have lasted years and years and years. For those whose lives were wrested from them in the violence of that time, such feelings are no more, but for the parents and families of the dead they are a continuing torment. It is up to us, who are free to speak out without risk, to support as best we can the quest of these families for relief from the suffering imposed upon them by an oppressive government.

Lois Wheeler Snow is a writer and the widow of Edgar Snow, the famed author of Red Star Over China and many other books.




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