'Tiananmen Just Woke Me Up'
The widow of celebrated writer Edgar Snow returned last week to a very different China
By MIA TURNER
Lois Wheeler Snow, the 79-year-old widow of writer Edgar Snow, had always been treated like royalty on her many trips to China. "I was a very privileged person and was driven around in Red Flag limousines," she recalls. Before her husband's death from pancreatic cancer in Switzerland in 1972, Chinese leaders even sent a medical team to care for Snow, who wrote the celebrated Red Star Over China. But that friendship and warmth suddenly disappeared during her visit to China last week. Authorities blocked her as she tried to meet with a leading human-rights activist whose son was killed in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, and police filmed her while visiting her husband's grave at Peking University. To add to the tension, another woman, Su Bingxian, the mother of a slain Tiananmen demonstrator, was detained when she tried to deliver money and a book to Ding on behalf of Snow.
TIME: Have you been involved in human rights in China before?
Snow: When the Tiananmen Square massacre occurred in 1989, I immediately sent off messages to [the late] Deng Xiaoping and the Central Committee about the revulsion [I felt] over what had happened. I also wrote a letter to the International Herald Tribune that was published. I did a lot in that regard. But I mistakenly thought I would serve more of a purpose by not outraging them [the Chinese authorities] and instead use my husband's influence. I could write to the leaders and express my opinion. But I never knew if those letters ever got to them. Then I found out that funds to which I had been contributing [for the families of Tiananmen victims] and a letter I had written to Ding Zilin [a leading human-rights activist in China] were confiscated. It was so pathetic. It made me very angry. I decided it was time I stood up and used the Snow name that I felt was being misused in China.
TIME: Why did you come to China this time?
Snow: My main objective was to try and persuade the Chinese authorities to unblock the funds and allow Ding Zilin to distribute the money to people who really needed it. It was sitting in some bank somewhere, doing nobody any good except the bankers. And apparently some of these families are in dire need of assistance. Those families are being punished through no fault of their own. I thought that given the esteem, the friendship of my husband and the long established relationship between him and China--one that I have continued since his death--that they might accept my request.
TIME: Had you been keeping in touch with the Chinese authorities?
Snow: Yes. I came to China for the first time in 1970. I successfully applied for a visa and got in way before other Americans could come in legally. Then Ed died in February 1972. He died of cancer of the pancreas and it was a bad death. The Chinese, I would like to stress, had done a remarkably wonderful thing by sending over a medical team. There were Chinese doctors and nurses round-the-clock in our house. It was a total demonstration of care and friendship. I will never forget that. It came directly through Mao [Zedong] and his wife Jiang Qing, and [Premier] Zhou Enlai and his wife Deng Yingchao. I went to China after that to thank everybody and I thanked Premier Zhou for doing what he did and he said: "You don't need to thank us. Ed did so much for us when we were in need. It is we who need to thank him..." So, from then on I came over almost every year. I was a very privileged person ... and drove around in Red Flag limousines with lace curtains. I was able to meet a lot of people just because I was Mrs. Edgar Snow. Then Tiananmen occurred. It just woke me up. And it is very interesting to me now to be in this position. I haven't been here for almost 12 or 13 years--and I obviously have some protection here because of my name--so I have been very uneasy. It has made me so personally aware of what it would be like to be an ordinary Chinese citizen who spoke out or who was against something that was going on. I knew that intellectually and have known it for a long time, but haven't experienced it so personally.
Snow: No. Tiananmen was an enormous shock to me as well as to so many people throughout the world, and I became very aware of people who were in difficulty in China ... being put in prison and so on. You'd see people being dragged off with bloody faces for instance. And little by little in my head grew the knowledge that the families of these people were being persecuted in some way. And somewhere along the line came Ding Zilin. I had read some articles that she wrote, and there was a press conference in which she was allowed, somehow, to broadcast to the United States from her apartment. So it became more and more obvious that there was a real need for some kind of assistance, some kind of attention. Then last summer I came across a plea for donations for this international fund to help the mothers of the victims of Tiananmen--headed by Ding Zilin. So I contributed to it. I sent a check [for US$100]. After I sent that check, I thought: 'That was an extremely easy thing to do. I ought to do something else.' So I decided to write a brief letter to her. It was a very simple note expressing my admiration for her courage and my support for her efforts to help the mothers and families in that way. And that was the letter that was confiscated by the Chinese government.
TIME: How much was in the fund when the government blocked it?
Snow: It came to something like US$25,000. And that was the straw that broke the camel's back. I have been more and more horrified at what the Chinese have been doing in terms of human rights. I've written letters to try my best to help ... This is all outside my jurisdiction but I do, through fortune, bear the name of Edgar Snow and I feel a certain responsibility about the use of the name in China. And to have Ed connected in any way, even tacitly, with the support of this government, is unacceptable. So I decided the only thing I could do is come to China and try and persuade them. I came openly, publicly and politely and they have responded with threats and certainly, a total lack of a grace. It's been awful. When I went out to visit my husband's grave at Peking University, they had a man sitting there pretending to read a newspaper. I was making a private visit and that kind of intrusion was so unnecessary. It makes it all the more disdainful.
TIME: You have come to China often so you must have contacts here. Did any of them contact you after you arrived?
Snow: No, I didn't call anyone and I haven't met with them either. I thought it was better not to do that. I didn't even bring my usual address book ... I had made so certain before I came over to China that I wouldn't hurt anybody, that I wouldn't make it worse. And here I am leaving the country and there is a woman detained because I started this.
TIME: And you never actually got to meet Ding Zilin?
Snow: No, I just spoke to her on the telephone. But I would love to meet her. What seems so stupid, for lack of a better word, is that if I had been allowed to come here, see Ding Zilin, visit my husband's grave, and then leave and go home, nobody would be interested in this. But look at what has happened. I think it should be enormously embarrassing to the Chinese, a member of the United Nations Security Council, behaving in such a petty fashion in the middle of a human rights conference in Geneva.
TIME: Was your visit timed to coincide with the annual meeting on human rights?
Snow: No it was not. I knew the conference was on but the timing of the China trip was simply convenient.
TIME: Are you following the human rights talks?
Snow: I live outside Geneva so ordinarily I do follow the talks. I certainly will be filled in when I get back. My daughter is there and she works for the International Red Cross.
TIME: What do you think about China's plans for a movie about your late husband?
Snow: Xinhua [the official Chinese news agency] reported--which was rather ironic--that a motion picture is being made of Ed and Mao, and that they are going to send a team to Switzerland to take some shots outside my house. I haven't even heard about it and I don't like it. If they are making a film, I would like to have some knowledge and some say in it.
TIME: At one stage you threatened to remove your husband's ashes from Peking University. What was your husband's request about the burial of his ashes?
Snow: Half his ashes are in China and half are in some place along the Hudson River in New York. He had a note in his will along the lines of "the Hudson River flowed down to the sea and therefore touches the shores of the many countries that I have been involved in." So I carried out his wishes.
TIME: Why Peking University?
Snow: The authorities had several places picked out. I suggested Baoan where Ed met Mao and the Red Army but they said it was too far away. Then I thought of Peking University. Ed taught journalism there when it was Yanjing University. I wanted it open to everyone and no fuss made about it. I sent over a couple hundred tulip bulbs. And so that's where he is and it's nice. There's a headstone that says in Chinese and English: "Edgar Snow, American Friend of the Chinese People." It's the "people" that are important.
(Snow returned home late last week to find a Chinese film crew at work outside her home. "We asked them what they were doing. None spoke English," she told TIME. "It was so astonishing that they would do something like that.")
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