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China's June 4 Student Leaders Await Change


Doug Young

HONG KONG (Reuters) - They marched together, fasted together and kept vigil beneath a makeshift Goddess of Democracy in Tiananmen Square before their drive to bring new freedoms to China was crushed beneath the army's tank treads.

Fast forward 14 years. The leaders of the 1989 Beijing Spring movement now live mostly in exile, their sights focused on such mundane matters as earning a living in investment consulting or Internet start-ups or broadcasting.

Many on China's list of the 21 most-wanted students issued shortly after the June 4 crackdown say they stay involved in the cause when they can. One or two have even found ways to pursue their passion nearly full-time.

But for most of them, real-world considerations take equal priority as they reflect on a movement the violent suppression of which left hundreds dead in and around Tiananmen Square.

"They're politically active in peripheral ways," said Mickey Spiegel, a Human Rights Watch senior researcher who keeps in touch with some of the leaders. "It's hard. You're really peripheral once you're out of the country."

The winds of change that ushered in the 1989 Beijing Spring ultimately deposited many of the 21 outlaws on foreign shores.

No. 2 on the list was Wuer Kaixi of Beijing Normal University, who now lives in Taiwan and works in broadcasting, other students and human rights activists said.

Chai Ling, known for her passionate speeches and tearful outbursts, escaped to the United States, divorced her husband, Feng Congde, a year later, and now heads a Boston-area Internet company.

Chai's former husband Feng, also on the list of 21, lives in Paris where he is preparing to defend his thesis in July as a doctoral student at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes.

Apart from his studies, the soft-spoken Feng's biggest passion is, his Web site containing an archive of nearly 8,000 documents about the June 4 army crackdown that put an end to the two-month-old democracy movement.

"Every day I memorialize June 4 with my Web site," said Feng, now 37, in a telephone interview from Paris. "I can't say I have a lot of hope, but there's been a little progress. Hope is always a long way off."


Of all the student leaders, Beijing University's Wang Dan was singled out as China's most wanted. Twice imprisoned, Wang was freed in 1998 and exiled to the United States where he recently finished his second year in a PhD program at Harvard University's history department.
Wang said he had helped to organize and participate in a series of forums and lectures on human rights, democracy and similar issues in China. He is also a director of the organization Human Rights in China.

"I'll probably need four or five years to complete my PhD, and then I hope I can return to China," Wang said in a written response to questions.

Wang and others said they were guardedly optimistic about China's new leaders, headed by recently promoted Communist Party chief and President Hu Jintao.

"They are a little faster to react than the previous generation," said Feng Congde. "Because of SARS, the discussion in the media has been relaxed. But real freedom of the press is still a long way off."

Zhou Fengsuo, the fifth-most-wanted student who now works as a financial analyst in San Francisco, was less upbeat.

"Any leadership change within the party has no significance," he said. "It's the system that's corrupt in China. The hope of China will not come from inside the party."

Zhou, Feng and Wang all said they had no regrets about taking part in the 1989 movement but, with the benefit of hindsight, felt they would perhaps have done some things differently.

"Personally I suffered a lot but I was still fortunate to be involved," said Zhou. "Of course I could have done some things better. I was young and naive. I did what I wanted and expressed myself. I felt like I was contributing to change in China."

Wang said his biggest regret was the loss of life when the movement was crushed.

"I have no regrets about taking part," he said. "But I am a humanist. If I had known in advance that a large number of people would die, I would not have promoted the movement as much as I did because I believe an individual's life is more important than the future of a country."


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