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November 30, 2000

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Three student leaders and three officials who played key roles at Tiananmen. Where they are now

By Yulanda Chung

A NEW UPHEAVAL?: Despite growing tensions, changes since 1989 have diminished the chances of another mass uprising

THE JUNE 4 EFFECT: It has changed Beijing's approach to economic, political and social policy

WHERE ARE THE RADICALS?: Not at Peking University, that's for certain

'MY LIFE CHANGED FOREVER': Lulu Fang was there and wished she wasn't

FOR BETTER OR WORSE, their names will for eternity be associated with the events of June 4, 1989. Few can forget the dissidents, the student leaders who led multitudes against the authoritarian regime in Beijing - Wang Dan, Wu'er Kaixi, Chai Ling. In the years since the trio of student leaders paraded across the planet's television screens, however, they have lost much of their luster. They are accused of being out of touch, self-centered, grasping even. As for the men who wielded power during those tumultuous times, some have fared better than others. Former premier Li Peng, for example, remains a power to be reckoned with. As does the still rising star Wen Jiabao. Not so fortunate is Wen's former boss Zhao Ziyang, the ex-Communist Party chief who openly expressed sympathy for the students; that act wrecked his political career. Their stories: then and now.

Wang Dan, 30 He was instrumental in launching the so-called democracy salons in the early days of the protest. After the crackdown, he topped the government's most-wanted list. He paid the price. The soft-spoken student leader was locked up for seven of the past 10 years. "I tried not to cry in front of the prison guards and show my indignation," Wang recalls, "but failed when I thought of my mother." In April 1998, Beijing released Wang on "medical parole." Today he is doing a masters degree in history at Harvard. Studying in English is daunting, but keeping alive his democratic campaign is quite another matter. "Ôt's my responsibility to do both," he says. Wang concedes that watching China from the other side of the world is "superficial." Yet Wang insists that if he could go back tomorrow and restart his campaign, he would "start packing right now." In the meantime, Wang says, disenfranchised workers will likely lead the next wave of protest.

Li Peng, 70 His name will forever be associated with the crackdown. Li declared martial law and imposed a curfew on Beijing (at Deng Xiaoping's order, no doubt). His unrelenting opposition to the students tipped the balance as Deng veered between calling the uprising a "riot" and a "patriotic movement." Li has been identified ever since as a hardliner. Unfazed by changing times and more moderate leadership, Li has tirelessly championed the official verdict that June 4 was a counter-revolutionary rebellion. During Zhu Rongji's recent U.S. trip, he said the "episode happened because they wanted democracy but they didn't want rule of law." Zhu made no reference to a counter-revolutionary rebellion. And there have been whispers about re-evaluating the verdict. Still, as the No. 2 man in the powerful Politburo, Li can easily amass the votes to halt any deviation from the official line.

Wu'er Kaixi, 31 Much has changed for the outspoken student leader who once berated Li Peng on national television. "I'd be a lot more hesitant if I were given a second chance to lead a demonstration," says Wu'er Kaixi. The former firebrand says he wouldn't even join a rally today. "I've learned that one man's death is one too many," he says. After evading capture, he fled eventually to the U.S., where he was accused of wasting donations on fast living and womanizing. (He denies the charges.) In 1994, he moved to Taiwan, where he now works as a radio talkshow host and runs a non-profit media consultancy that focuses on Taipei-Beijing relations and mainland democracy movements. While acknowledging that he has a comparatively comfortable life, he tells of his "spiritual torture in exile," adding that he longs "to be back in China every single moment of his life." His verdict on the student movement of 10 years ago? "It's wrong to call it patriotic," says Wu'er Kaixi. "It is more a matter of love of freedom than love of country."

Zhao Ziyang, 80 If there is one Chinese official who will go down as a benign leader during the Tiananmen events, it is Zhao. The then Communist Party chief praised the students for their patriotism before delegates at the annual general meeting of the Asian Development Bank, to which Beijing played host in May 1989. And vivid in many minds are televised images of Zhao's visits to ailing hunger strikers in hospital and in Tiananmen Square during squally rains. But Zhao paid the ultimate political price for his actions. Driven from power by Deng Xiaoping because he had severely divided the leadership, Zhao has been under house arrest to this day. Last year, when former president Yang Shangkun died, Zhao lost his last important ally. But he is not entirely a spent force. Just before U.S. President Bill Clinton's visit to China last year, Zhao wrote to the Central Committee of the Communist Party demanding a re-evaluation of the June 4 verdict. The fact that he could circulate such a controversial letter indicates glimmers of moderate support. Real reconciliation, however, can only come if he is released - unlikely any time soon.

Chai Ling, 32 The world watched her rally the students in Tiananmen and shed kilos during a hunger strike. Close-up, people experienced her addiction to the spotlight and her regal manners. Ten years on, Chai seems an entirely different woman. She no longer even looks the same - a plastic surgeon gave her the double-eyelids of a Caucasian (a disguise to flee the authorities, she says) and today she runs a Massachusetts-based company that develops intranets for universities. Her makeover has exposed her to charges that she abandoned the cause for self-centered pursuits. And some have accused her of milking her dissident credentials to get into Ivy League colleges (Princeton for a masters in public affairs and Harvard for an MBA). "She has almost quit the overseas Chinese democratic scene," says a fellow dissident. "But there is nothing wrong with keeping a low profile." In fact, Chai's business venture also aims to create an online student community promoting the free flow of information in the mainland. Chai hopes to return to China - but only after the present generation of leaders has gone. That could be a while.

Wen Jiabao, 57 He was a Zhao protege. Moreover, he was Beijing's chief negotiator with the students in Tiananmen. For most, this would have been a political kiss of death. Yet against all odds Wen has rehabilitated himself. His pro-market outlook has propelled him to the vice-premiership of the State Council, China's cabinet. He is tipped to climb even higher - to succeed Premier Zhu Rongji when the current leadership retires. Some say Wen's extraordinary rise has less to do with him than with prevailing circumstances - and others' mistakes. Fellow State Council vice-premier Wu Bangguo's failure to tackle China's floundering state-owned enterprises gave Wen the perfect chance to show his mettle. He also scored points when he made the swift decision to blow up dikes during last year's catastrophic floods and divert water away from important cities. Wen is one of the few Zhao disciples who has managed to escape the legacy of June 4.


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