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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

CHINA
Dissidents' Dilemma

For some, the choice is prison or irrelevance


THE JUDGMENTS MAY SEEM harsh to those used to praise and admiration for China's dissidents. But harsh is, increasingly, the tone used by Chinese themselves when they talk about compatriots like Liu Gang, a student leader during the Tiananmen protests of 1989. Some of today's students and intellectuals even call him a "traitor." Liu's crime? He surfaced in the U.S. last week, escaping what he says was frequent harassment of his friends and family by police, and possible imprisonment for himself. Washington is considering his request for political asylum.

"Perhaps Liu feels safer outside China, but he will be totally ineffectual there," says a one-time supporter of the Tiananmen protests. Adds a Beijing University student: "He won't garner any support at home." In part, such views reflect a growing patriotism in China, encouraged by the government and fed by Western criticism on everything from abuse of human rights to poor protection of intellectual property.

Dissidents who have left China are chided for a lack of commitment. Liu might respond that he has paid his dues. Caught by authorities shortly after the Tiananmen crackdown -- he had been high on their "most-wanted" list -- the activist spent six years in prison. Liu's father, Liu Guichen, says his son fled for personal reasons: "a guarantee for his human rights, his safety and his right to earn a living."

But a law student at Beijing University says dissidents who pursue change through protest and upheaval are out of touch with the mood of the country. Though people are unhappy about official corruption, unemployment and rising crime, he says, "the vast majority fear chaos and place prime importance on stability and sustained economic development. They've concluded that incremental political reform is much better than revolutionary change." A more sophisticated democratic movement is emerging in China, the student adds. "The 1979 Democracy Wall and the 1989 campaigns had weak foundations. Future democratic leaders will have new and more solid social bases." Another student, who supports Liu, says that dissidents will ultimately be judged by whether their actions enhance China's stability. The growth of such sentiments may represent a victory for the government in its efforts to convince people of stability's importance.

Activists themselves face an increasingly acute dilemma. They are jailed if they stay in China, forgotten if they leave -- and marginalized either way. Wei Jingsheng, first imprisoned in 1979 and recently sentenced to another 14 years, earns some esteem for remaining in China. But respected social critic Zhang Xianliang, 60, who himself spent 22 years in prison, says of Wei: "He is neither a thinker nor a writer. Wei has no influence at all among Chinese."

Wang Dan, another student leader at Tiananmen, has stayed in China since his 1993 release from prison. The reason, says a former teacher of his, is that "he fears not being able to come back. It's political suicide to leave." Wang was picked up by police a year ago and remains detained without trial. At some point, he will probably have to face the same difficult choice confronting China's other dissidents.

-- By Tim Healy and David Hsieh / Beijing

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