Ding Zilin has spent the past 24 years on one mission: seeking justice for the death of her son, 17-year-old Jiang Jielian, who was shot in the back by Chinese soldiers on the night of June 3, 1989.
This year, her mood is one of black despair.
"It's possible that before I leave this world, I won't see justice," the frail 76-year-old told me. We're sitting in the living room of her Beijing home, near a shrine to her son that includes a wooden cabinet holding his ashes.
Ding co-founded the group known as the Tiananmen Mothers, after the Chinese government's crackdown on protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
The group's 36th open letter — none has received any official reply — speaks of the "general sense of despair" permeating Chinese society, amid dashed hopes that new President Xi Jinping would bring political changes.
"What we see, precisely, are giant steps backwards towards Maoist orthodoxy," the letter reads, casting Xi as just the latest Chinese leader who has failed to undertake political reforms. "They come one after another, as if through a revolving door; and as they move forward, they become ever more distant and outrageous, causing a universal feeling of despair to descend."
In the days since her interview with NPR, Ding and her husband, Jiang Peikun, have not been allowed to leave their apartment. They had wanted to mourn their son at the spot where he died, but they have not been permitted to do so.
"We are both old people, getting on for 80 years old," they wrote in an email. "We do not have much time. We will not have many opportunities left to hold memorials."
Authorities have prevented another founding member of the Tiananmen Mothers, Zhang Xianling, from visiting Hong Kong in the runup to the anniversary.
Her 19-year-old son was shot dead while taking photographs of the martial law troops. This year, she lent the dented helmet he was wearing that night to a temporary museum in Hong Kong that was commemorating June 4. The former British colony is the only place on Chinese soil where candlelight vigils are permitted, to remember the killings.
Zhang had been scheduled to accompany her husband, Wang Fandi, a musician of the pipa, a traditional Chinese instrument, to watch a pipa competition in Hong Kong.
But Chinese police warned her not to visit Hong Kong at this "sensitive" time. In a phone conversation, she said the authorities' mishandling of her trip was almost comical.
"It should have been a very good cultural event and now, it's become a scandal that violates my human rights," she said.
Lasting Impacts Of Crackdown
The Chinese authorities show no sign of reassessing the events of 24 years ago. At a recent briefing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei made that very clear.
"China has already reached a clear conclusion on the political turmoil that took place at the end of the 1980s as well as on all related issues," he said.
One lasting impact of the crackdown has been its legitimization of violence to put down protests, according to Bao Tong, who was the most senior government official to be imprisoned in 1989. He spent seven years in prison on charges of leaking a state secret, counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement.
Bao sees the crackdown as beginning the era of "stability maintenance," when the Chinese state has little compunction about using its security apparatus to suppress protests.
"If such a thing was possible at the highest levels, then why not at lower levels?" he asks. "Since June 4, there has not been a big Tiananmen, but how many little Tiananmens have there been? How many little Tiananmens are there every day?"
The Internet Impact
However, a major change since 1989 has been the increasing importance of the Internet and social media in China.
"There already is a democracy movement online," Chen Ziming said in a recent interview. Accused of being the "black hand" behind the student demonstrations, he was sentenced to 13 years in prison after 1989.
These days, he still lives in Beijing and works as an independent political analyst. He said Weibo, which is the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, could change the political landscape.
"Now in the Weibo era, it has become a major online democracy movement. If you think about the early democracy movements in the '70s and '80s, there was only a small group of people involved," Chen said. "Now with Weibo, it has become a large crowd."
But China's government has taken action to neuter the power of social media, by rolling out more sophisticated censorship tools that sanitize online search results on Weibo instead of banning them. Rather than announcing that the search terms are censored, it produces a list of politically acceptable results. An example is a search for the term Tiananmen Square. It produces videos and pictures of the flag-raising ceremony on the square marking Children's Day, while failing to include more politically sensitive material.
Nonetheless, some Chinese activists have used social media to call for people to wear black T-shirts Tuesday to remember the anniversary.
A Weak U.S. Response
Back at her house in Beijing, activist Ding did not save her censure for the Chinese government alone. Noting the U.S.-China summit scheduled for the end of this week, she also criticized President Obama's weak response when authorities put writer and democracy activist Liu Xiaobo under residential surveillance in a police-run hotel, in December 2008. Liu would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010.
Ding pointed out that there was a full six months until he was formally arrested and charged with "incitement of subversion of state power," and she believes a lack of vocal U.S. condemnation during that time emboldened the Chinese government to give Liu an 11-year sentence.
"They were checking the direction of the wind, seeing how the U.S. reacted," she said, characterizing the Chinese government's attitude during his initial detention. "But I think Obama was weak. There was almost no reaction."
Reflecting on the upcoming summit in California, she did not hold back: "Obama is not a president who cares about human rights."