Police in Beijing have detained a woman whose son died in police custody during the military crackdown on the 1989 democracy movement on Tiananmen Square.
Tang Deying was detained after she traveled to the capital to pursue a compensation claim for her son's death, according to a close associate identified by her surname Zhou.
"We are seeking compensation from the state," said Zhou, who accompanied Tang to Beijing after a high court in the southwestern province of Sichuan turned down her landmark compensation lawsuit earlier this month.
"We went to the central government and to the Supreme Court and we filled out forms," Zhou said.
"After that we had planned to seek out [Chinese premier] Wen Jiabao and [president] Hu Jintao to ask them if they had received our letters," she said.
Zhou said she and Tang had sent off "countless" letters to the authorities after Tang's son Zhou Guocong died in a detention center. He had been detained while watching the demonstrations as a 15-year-old bystander.
"We had sent off so many letters ... but before we got [to government headquarters], we were taken to the police station by the police," Zhou said.
Call to respond
Sichuan-based rights activist Huang Qi, who founded his Tianwang64 website in part to help Tang and others like her press their cases with the authorities, called on the government to respond to the relatives of the 1989 victims.
"They are a hugely influential group, politically speaking," Huang said.
"If the government were to overturn the unjust verdict against the 1989 pro-democracy movement [this would] win people over once more," he said.
"It would be a huge return for the least investment."
Huang said he estimated that a Tiananmen relative could hope to win around 650,000 yuan (U.S. $101,600) in compensation for a loved one who died in the crackdown, given current economic realities.
He said he thinks the authorities are likely to start compensating the group within the next three years, because they are highly influential though very small in number.
The Nov. 11 decision by the Sichuan Provincial High People's Court was 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.
Wave of condemnation
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.
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.
She was told by the court: "The state will not pay compensation in respect of the June 4 Tiananmen incident."
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 22 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 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 27th 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 Wei Ling for RFA's Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.