An activist in southern China has said authorities had paid compensation to the mother of a boy who died at the hands of police as part of a violent 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. The activist says it was the first publicized case of the government offering any redress to a victim's family. However, international human rights advocates say they do not take the payment as a sign that the Communist authorities are ready to reassess the crackdown.
News of the payment surprised human rights advocates, since China has never allowed public discussion of the crackdown, much less given compensation - at least publicly - for protesters who died on and after June 4, 1989.
Nicholas Becquelin, a China researcher with the group Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, says the Chinese government does not appear ready to revisit the events of 1989, which he says challenged the communist leadership's legitimacy.
"It has tried very hard since 1989 to claim that it did not do anything wrong; that they (leaders) were facing counterrevolutionary troubles that had to be put down violently and that the same time prevent any type of inquiry into what happened. So I think that the government is still extremely sensitive about this, does not want to reopen the issue and certainly does not want to acknowledge any kind of guilt or fault," said Becquelin.
Tens of thousands of people, mostly young adults, took part in pro-democracy protests across China in April and May of 1989. The biggest demonstration went on for days in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, until troops moved in on June 4 to clear the area. Some activists have said hundreds, perhaps thousands, of protesters died in the ensuing crackdown.
Huang Qi is an activist in the southern city of Chengdu, who announced that local authorities paid about $8,700 hundred in "hardship assistance" to Tang Deying. For 17 years, she had petitioned for compensation after her 15-year-old son was beaten to death while in police custody during the 1989 crackdown.
"The compensation given by the government this time is just an individual case," said Huang. "It does not necessarily mean that the government will reevaluate the June 4th incident."
Huang and others say the payment was the work of local officials who used their individual discretion. It is not clear if the central government approved.
Like Tang, relatives of many other victims have asked for restitution. Authorities have repeatedly harassed and jailed a number of them for merely voicing their appeals.
Advocates say that the Chengdu local government's decision to provide restitution to Tang Deying is important even if does not signal an overall change of attitude by the Beijing authorities on the Tiananmen massacre.
With the number of civil disturbances growing throughout China, they say it perhaps more significantly reflects that Chinese citizens are taking matters into their own hands and increasingly pressing the government for greater accountability.