Ten years after the massacre of students at Tiananmen Square, China's dissidents in exile are fractious and ineffective. Isabel Hilton asks them what happened
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The Independent Culture
EARLIER this year, at a congressional hearing in Washington on human rights in China, rival groups of Chinese exile dissidents came to blows before the horrified gaze of their supporters and of congressmen. It was, all present agreed, a singular victory for the radicals' common enemy, the Chinese government.

Ten years ago, when tanks moved in to crush the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square, the world's sympathy for the dissidents' cause had never been higher. Now the heroes of Tiananmen have dissolved into faction- ridden irrelevance, and the new generation of Chinese students shows little sympathy for the exile dissidents. "Ten years ago," said one exile activist, "many people in China were hoping that the demonstrators would bring down the government. Now they look at the way the dissidents behave and they say, thank God they didn't."

The traumatic events of 4 June 1989 dramatically changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. For those who were there, for the tens of thousands who demonstrated in the provinces, for their families and sympathisers, 4 June was an epiphany, the moment at which the trust between rulers and ruled was definitively breached. Thousands were arrested in the aftermath, hundreds fled abroad. Tens of thousands who were already outside China chose, at that moment, not to return. In the United States alone, 40,000 Chinese students were immediately granted the precious Green Cards that permitted them to stay and work in America. Even today, human rights organisations say that successful asylum applications in the United States from Chinese citizens run at about a thousand a year.

The young leaders of the Tiananmen demonstrators had been abruptly propelled from obscurity into the full spotlight of western media celebrity. Money poured in to enable them to establish themselves as an opposition in exile. A decade later, little is left of that opposition but disillusionment. "Perhaps it was unrealistic to expect them to have had much impact on China," says Jim Seymour, a senior research scholar at Columbia University, New York, who is active in Chinese human-rights work. "China is so huge and they are very few. It's rare for exiles to be able to bring about change back home. But it is disappointing, nevertheless. I think there was a misperception about the maturity and experience of these people."

It's a judgment that many share. The Tiananmen demonstrations were not the culmination of a political plan, but an explosion of frustration that had many causes. Those who "led" in the square sometimes did so on no firmer basis than a determination to grab and hold on to the megaphone, and an ability to use it to good effect. This is not a training for the kind of long-term stategy that effective opposition demands.

The fate of such people in exile has been varied. Chai Ling, the glamorous young woman who gave a controversial interview, in which she talked of longing for bloodshed, to the American journalist Philip Cunningham just before the crackdown, went to Harvard Business School and is now running an Internet company. Of three of the central figures who made the 1988 television documentary Yellow River Elegy, one of the key events in the lead-up to the protests, two have had religious conversions and are now preaching Christianity in America and the third has gone into business. Liu Binyan, a veteran journalist who was abroad during the events of 1989, lives in Princeton and edits a newsletter on Chinese affairs. Wuerkaixi, another of the celebrity student leaders, is in Taiwan hosting a radio show that organises blind dates. A few of the others served time in sweatshops in New York's garment district, or made a precarious living as pavement artists.

In the first years of exile, the dissidents set up organisations to carry on the work of opposition. But they are now more at war with each other than with Beijing. Many had pinned their hopes on Wei Jingsheng, China's most famous political activist, who was released last year after being almost continuously in jail since 1979. He is now in exile in America. "I had hoped that Wei Jingsheng could pull things together," says Jim Seymour, "but he made it worse. Perhaps it's in the nature of dissidents that they cannot work together." In a recent interview with a Taiwanese magazine, Wei Jingsheng accused Wang Xizhe, a fellow victim of the 1979 crackdown, of being an agent of the Chinese government. Meanwhile, Jim Seymour is trying to dissuade yet another veteran dissident, Tao Changqing, from continuing his campaign of personal attacks on selected exiles.

In China, a new generation of students has grown up with no memory of the Cultural Revolution and little recollection of the events of Tiananmen Square. It is this generation that has been on the streets again in the past few weeks, not calling for democracy but in protest against the Nato bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. "It just shows," observed Seymour, "that the Chinese are frustrated and if they get a chance they will demonstrate. The unfortunate thing about the dissidents is that the way they behave just confirms the impression that democracy is a lost cause and what is needed is a strong leader."

But not everything was lost. One organisation, Human Rights in China, run by Chinese exiles in America, flourishes. In its offices in the Empire State building, the executive director Xiao Qiang described how his life was abruptly changed in 1989. A student in the United States at the time, Xiao Qiang returned to China two days after the massacre began. "I was the only person on the plane," he says. "I spent two months in China trying to find victims and families. It turned me into an activist."

Human Rights in China works directly with political prisoners and their families, and promotes international advocacy. If such an organisation can succeed, why did the broader political movement fragment? "I have asked myself this so many times," says Xiao Qiang. "One factor is simply inexperience." Still, he argues, things have moved on since 1989. "There are 4 million Internet users in China now and that has doubled in the last 18 months. It has created a genuinely free space where people are learning about discussion and democracy. Then people look at the official newspapers and see the difference."

Wherever the next political tremors that will shake the creaking edifice of China's Communist Party begin, they are unlikely to owe much to the last decade of exile activism. A year ago, Wei Jingsheng was regarded as a hero of the struggle for democracy. Last January, less than a year after he was released from prison and expelled from China, a rival group of exile dissidents sent faxes to the American media in which they called Wei a "phoney" and a "rootless bubble star" with "poor vision and moderate IQ". Beijing's propagandists could not have been more pleased. Profiles: five dissidents in exile WANG JUNTAO

IF ANY of the exiled dissidents can be called a mature political thinker, Wang Juntao, 49, has earned the title. His activism began with the wave of protest that swept China in the mid-Seventies and by 1989 he had 13 years of activism under his belt. The son of a traditional Communist and a military officer, Wang experienced his political awakening when he was sent to work in the countryside around Beijing during the Cultural Revolution.

"I was 15 or 16," he said. "It was such a shock. I had lived in an elite society where the government controlled everything. Suddenly I was in the countryside and I found that nothing was as they had said it was." In 1976 he led a group of his university classmates to demonstrate in support of Deng Xiaoping in Tiananmen Square. When the movement was suppressed, Wang was sent to prison for seven months.

"I didn't think that I had done anything wrong, but I wanted to work out why such a strong movement had been so easily suppressed. I decided it was because Chinese people lacked democracy and were superstitious. I made a commitment to fight for democracy." In 1977, when the political criteria for university entrance were abolished, Wang won a place at Peking University. With the start of the Democracy Wall protest in 1979, Wang resumed his activism, publishing an unofficial newspaper that sold more than 10,000 copies an issue.

By the early Eighties he was involved in dozens of projects, from independent schools and research institutes to publishing and translation of Western political writings. He also helped to set up China's first independent polling organisation. "In China," he said wryly, "you can do anything - but nothing is easy." When the Tiananmen demonstration began in the spring of 1989, Wang's organisation held back. "We didn't want to give the government an excuse to close us down," he said. "I saw three possible outcomes to the demonstrations: one that the government would be overthrown, but the demonstrators would not be ready to take over - the result would have been chaos. Two, that there would be a crackdown with loss of life and a political purge. And, three, that they would reach agreement and move forward. Once they hadn't reached agreement in May, it was obvious there would be a crackdown."

Wang began to make escape plans for the student leaders. "I had set up a co-ordinating committee and a command system. When the crackdown started I knew that the army would have their hands full securing the streets and that I would have three days to get people out of Beijing, then another seven to get them to safe places. By 7 June, I had everybody out. I was the last to leave Beijing." Wang was eventually arrested and sentenced to 13 years in prison. There he tried to set up an alliance for political prisoners and staged 20 hunger strikes, one lasting 58 days. After four- and-a-half years he was released and sent into exile as a result of American pressure.

"I couldn't get used to it. The plane captain came to tell me I was leaving the motherland but I didn't understand what he was saying until the first secretary of the US embassy translated for me. I didn't expect life to be so hard here. In China we thought the US supported the democracy movement, but Americans don't pay any attention to powerless people. They prefer to keep in contact with people who can influence China. It's a good lesson. It helped me to understand that there are moral principles in democracy but they are to do with interests and distribution. Chinese democrats are strangers to common sense so they don't get the support of the people."

Wang spent his first year, he says, trying to persuade US politicians to understand China, but it was "hopeless". Now he is studying for a doctorate at Columbia University. "People in China observe what has happened to the overseas dissidents and they think they had a lucky escape in 1989. If the dissidents had won, it would have been worse. Now they think that the US wants to take advantage of the human rights issue to advance its own interests. The Chinese government learned that it must stamp on movements immediately, but at the same time they had to improve their relations with the people so they went for economic reform. The dissidents were the losers, but they became famous. They got so famous that they forgot that they had lost and that they must have done something wrong. They became corrupted by what the West had to offer - not money, but fame."

Wang remains optimistic about change in China. "The Chinese are not interested in politics at the moment," he said. "Some people think that's bad for democracy, but actually it's bad for the Communist Party. The Communist Party needs people to believe in dreams more than the democrats do. Democracy is about interests. Communism is about illusions."


LU JINGHUA, 38, was dressed in baggy trousers and a T-shirt. Her office - a large room at the top of a scruffy Manhattan building - was crammed with computers. From time to time she broke off the conversation to attend to clients who wandered in. Lu's English is rapid, if rudimentary, her voice hoarse from the Marlboro cigarettes that she keeps stacked beside the machines.

Her father, an army veteran and a Marxist, was none too pleased, she said, when his daughter got involved in the pro- democracy demonstrations. Lu Jinghua had set up her own shop on Changan Avenue, the boulevard that bisects Beijing and runs across the top end of Tiananmen Square.

"I was making money," she laughed, "doing well, so people said to me, why did I join the movement? But I had a small business - no status. And besides, my personality hadn't changed. I agreed with democracy. I had no chance to go to university so I liked to listen to the demonstrators. I felt like their big sister. I gave them money and I looked after their heavy banners overnight in my shop so they didn't have to carry them home. I got the neighbours organised to take them food and water in the square. Whatever they wanted, I got it for them."

One day in late May, Lu was invited to join a group of workers who had set up a small tent. It was the Beijing Workers Autonomous Trades Federation - a group that had more potential to worry the government than even the students. "Business was slow, so I put someone in charge of the shop and I joined them. I was in charge of the broadcasts. I would read things out. I would tell stories to them, how the workers had nothing and the leaders have cars. More and more people came to listen. I slept on the floor because I knew that if I went home I would be followed and I might be arrested.

"On 31 May martial law had been declared and government agents had told us to move, so we moved right into the square. Lots of people came to register with us. I was taking their names. We had no food or water. People took things to the students but nobody brought us anything. I'm not criticising or jealous, but there were lots of people listening to us.

"The night the army came, I finally left the square at 2.30am and made my way out. It was terrible. They were shooting people, there was blood everywhere. I was mad, sad, scared - everything together. I just didn't want to die. I didn't know whether to walk or run. I had a heavy box with all the name-lists in and I wanted to burn it. It was dangerous. But I had some business cards, too, of some journalists from Hong Kong. I kept those.

"It was my daughter's birthday on 2 June and I missed it because I was in the square. My mother was looking after my daughter - she was two - and I went to say goodbye. It was terrible. I didn't see her for five- and-a-half years. The Hong Kong reporters helped me to get to Hong Kong. I spent three months there, then came to the US."

In Hong Kong, she recalls, she was just glad to be alive. Every day there was more bad news about those who had not escaped. "When I got refugee status, I was just sad. I didn't speak English and I did all kinds of jobs - working in supermarkets and studying. I was still active in human rights. Then I met a trades union leader in Washington who offered me a job in the Ladies Garment Workers' Union, working with the Chinese members. It wasn't well-paid, but I was happy and they let me carry on with my speaking engagements."

In 1996 Lu was laid off. She trained in computers and set up her own business, building computer systems. "I tried to go back to China in 1992 to see my mother and my daughter. But at the airport, 18 policemen came and said, why are you trying to come back? I said, why not? Then a big fight started. My mother was waiting, but they wouldn't let me see her. They put me back on the plane and I was fighting all the way."

Now Lu is married to an American and her daughter lives with her. As I leave, she takes my arm and her voice drops to a whisper. "You know, some of these students, they just think they are great. But they don't talk about the workers. I'm not jealous, but people should remember the workers." BAO PU

"I KNEW something terrible was going to happen," said Bao Pu, 32, recalling the events of 1989, "but I didn't know when." He knew because on 27 May, a week before the tanks moved into Tiananmen Square, his father, Bao Tong, a key figure among the liberal officials around Zhao Ziyang, was arrested.

It was clear to Bao Pu, then a student, that the liberals had lost. It was only a matter of time.

"I decided to go abroad. I had a lot of help from people who were sympathetic to my father and I left in November. It was a very strange experience arriving in Los Angeles. There was nobody on the streets - it was as though there had been a nuclear war. My main problem was language: the lack of it diminished and degraded me. I felt my intelligence didn't count because I couldn't express myself at all."

Bao Pu did have relatives in California, and after several weeks of intensive language school, he found a job as a laboratory assistant at Ruttgers University in New Jersey. He went on to study Public Administration at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School.

Now 32, Bao Pu has done well in exile (he works for Andersen Consulting) but feels that his life is on hold. "I am very interested in international relations, but I cannot - or will not - become an American citizen and I cannot work for the Chinese government unless that government changes."

His father was charged with counter- revolutionary incitement and revealing state secrets. He was sentenced to seven years in prison with a further two years' loss of political rights. "One day in May 1998 a policeman came to the door and told him that his political rights were restored. So now he says what he likes. He's probably the only person in Beijing who can say what he wants" Bao Pu has revisited China, but was followed and interrogated by the police. Now he is involved with human rights work and does not feel he can live in China until the changes he is committed to have taken place.

"If 4 June hadn't happened, I don't know where I would be. I certainly wouldn't have had the opportunities that I have had." Not everything, he argues, was lost in 1989. "Millions of people were able to experience a moment of freedom and to know what that feels like. A mass movement is always irrational and emotional, and, yes, the short-term effect was that the government got stricter. But today the debate about human rights is in the minds of Chinese government officials at all levels."


HAD IT not been for the events of June 1989, Henry Zhou, as he calls himself (he changed his name after escaping from China), would probably now be a serving officer in the Chinese Navy. In May 1989 Zhou, now 33, was a probationary officer on a warship sailing out of Fujian Naval Base, in south-east China. Now he is a student in London, living in a small room in Battersea that is crammed with books on psychology. Zhou is trying to make sense of human behaviour.

It all started when he refused to obey an order. Zhou was serving as his ship's communications officer. He had spent weeks listening to broadcasts from Voice of America and Radio Taiwan, sometimes hooking the transmissions up to the public address system so that fellow officers could follow the news. It was not conventional behaviour for a Chinese naval officer, but Zhou already had doubts about a naval career: to stay in the service, he would have had to join the Communist Party, and, as a student, Zhou had decided that he could not become a party member.

"I wrote in a report that I felt the Party was undemocratic," he said. "That gave me a political problem with the navy. My fellow officers were sympathetic, but they said what I was doing was dangerous. Many officers felt themselves to be in the middle in the dispute between the government and the students. They didn't know which way things would go, but they sympathised with the students. By 1 June it was clear which way things were going and we were ordered to make war preparations to intercept students who might try to escape to Hong Kong. I felt it was time to say something." He wrote a report to his superior officers expressing sympathy for the students. Who did the armed forces belong to, he asked: the people or the Party leaders? Zhou was soon to have an answer. He was swiftly detained.

"I didn't know what had happened in Tiananmen until my guards told me later," he said. "But a commander came and told me I was under arrest and that I was to be investigated." This took six months, during which Zhou escaped once but was persuaded to turn himself in. He was sentenced to two years of "education through labour".

"I was released after 18 months but I had to report to the local police and they treated me like a criminal. I realised this would not change and I decided to escape to Hong Kong."

When Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 he applied for political asylum in Britain. "I wanted to stay in Hong Kong, but the head of the Xinhua News Agency had made it clear that people like me could not stay after the handover, so I had to leave."

He looked around his tiny room. He is, he admits, homesick. "I feel very unsettled. I have been looking for a job but I also want to study. Dissidents should learn to be useful in the future." He has been disappointed by many of the dissidents who influenced him in the past. "Some of them have turned to religion," he said. "I think that means that they had passion, but no appreciation of science." Science, for Henry Zhou, holds the key to understanding human society. Now 33, he hopes one day to return to China.

"The Chinese people can sometimes be very open, because they threw away all their traditions. In the UK, you have democracy, which is a good thing, but sometimes bad things come out of it - people are very selfish and don't care what others are thinking or doing. While I was at university, I became sceptical about the Communist Party. I never regretted what I did. It came from the heart. I just said what I believed."


LI LU WOULD be back in a minute, his assistant explained. "He's just outside with a CNN crew." The Manhattan office is the headquarters of Li Lu's latest venture - his own hedge fund, set up last year. Moments later, Li Lu, 33, came bustling in.

Portly, bespectacled and smartly dressed, he was a whirlwind of apology and joviality. Modesty is not one of Li Lu's foremost characteristics and the lack of it has made him enemies among the dissident community. His CV points out that he was the first person in the 200-year history of Columbia University to gain three degrees at once (in law, business and economics), and he adds, almost in an aside, that he learned English from scratch to college level in a few months. That had never been done either, he said.

"I left right after the events," he explained. "I was on the 21 Most- Wanted List and I was smuggled out to Hong Kong and then to Paris. From Paris to the United States. At first I came to talk about my experiences, then I stayed on to study."

After his triple graduation, Li Lu wrote a book and made a film about his experiences, then worked for the Alliance for a Democratic China, an exile political pressure group. Now, he says, he helps to fund human rights and dissident organisations, but is no longer personally active. Li Lu readily agrees that the dissidents have become fractious. What they need, he argues, is a leader. "No exile movement that didn't have a strong leader was ever successful," he expands. "Look at Khomeini, Charles de Gaulle, the Dalai Lama. I don't know why we didn't have one. Bad luck, I guess. The dissidents have a lot in common, but they fight over specific policies, so they never matured into an effective force."

But the movement still has a role, he argues. "It's symbolically important that someone is holding up the banner of human rights in China, and being outside gives us an advantage in studying how to build a society that's economically and politically free.

"We didn't get what we wanted, which was to force the government to recognise our right to exist. But it did make people see through the regime. And there was an international legacy. It was the beginning of unimaginable changes - the Berlin Wall, the USSR, South Africa, democratisation in Taiwan and South Korea. It all started with the student movement."

Li Lu has done well out of the fame that being a dissident brought him. There are those in the movement who call him an opportunist, a charge to which he responds swiftly. "I feel a responsibility to succeed because I am saying that anyone who was in that square could have done what I have done, if only they had lived in a free society. I'm not doing it just for myself. I'm doing it for all of them, too."