Cashing in on Tiananmen
Part 7 - Changing China
by Yvonne Abraham
His critics have been saying that for years.
"They were thrown to the fore by a very intense street movement," says Guo
Luoji, a former Nanjing University philosophy professor who is now a research
fellow at Harvard Law School.
Guo, a highly regarded elder of the dissident community here, is 65, slight,
and serene. A student radical in the 1940s, Guo joined the Communist Party when
one of its slogans was `Against one-party rule'; he became disillusioned during
the Cultural Revolution, and published articles critical of Mao's rule. Even
after the Democracy Wall movement of 1979 was crushed, and Wei Jingsheng was
jailed, Guo continued to criticize the party: an article he wrote called
`Political Issues May Be Discussed' -- a heretical concept, and an open act of
defiance -- was published in the People's Daily, a Communist Party
newspaper based in Shanghai. Shortly thereafter, Deng Xiaoping expelled Guo
from Beijing for his views. Banished to Nanjing in 1982, he was forbidden to
His Nanjing University students came to him for advice during the protests of
1989, Guo says. But, he adds, they rarely listened to him, determined to
perform rash -- and often pointless -- acts of defiance. After the crackdown,
one of his graduate students was arrested, and Guo brought and won a civil
lawsuit against the Communist Party for unlawful arrest. He continued to sue on
other matters, chipping away at the party, doing damage. When Guo came to the
United States from Nanjing in 1993, as a visiting scholar at Columbia, he was
forbidden re-entry to China.
Having lived the last 56 years on the front lines of political dissent in
China, even as the enemies shifted over the decades, Guo feels qualified to
assess the student movement of 1989. Many of the young students who arrived in
Tiananmen in the spring, Guo says through a translator, were political novices.
He pulls out a copy of the Press Freedom Guardian and smooths a page. On
the occasion of Deng Xiaoping's death, nine of the student leaders from 1989,
including Chai Ling and Li Lu, published an announcement about China's
"The story of a democratic China," they write, "which began with the 1989
democracy movement, will turn a new page." Began. Guo has the translator
read that sentence a couple of times. "They think they were the first ones to
think about everything," he says. "They think they were the first heroes."
Guo Luoji is one of many dissidents fame has passed clean by, chiefly because
few of them are as telegenic and as good with English as Shen Tong, Chai Ling,
Li Lu, and Wu'er Kaixi. No matter that some of the residents of Boston's
dissident community have done courageous things to reform the government in
China, acts for which they have been imprisoned and exiled. The machinery of
fame is highly selective.
And the selected few have reaped enormous rewards. Chai Ling and Li Lu, who
had been close allies during the Tiananmen demonstrations, have that machinery
figured out. Chai, who is now at Harvard Business School, is working on her
memoirs. Li, a high-powered investment banker, is said to be parlaying his
Tiananmen heroism and compelling story into business opportunities in the
Chinese market economy his oppressor Deng Xiaoping created. Both are still
frequently tapped for TV and other appearances to give the American public
their perspective on China. Neither, however, has a great deal to do with the
Chinese dissident community. Li Lu, for instance, writes almost exclusively for
For Wu'er Kaixi, the machinery did not work so smoothly. Making the mistake
of assuming that his courage in Tiananmen Square could sustain him as a public
hero, Wu'er believed his own hype and paid for it, falling into obscurity and a
succession of poorly paid jobs. Wu'er, now a father and husband, has recovered
control; he lives in Taiwan and hosts a Charlie Rose-style talk show.
Shen Tong had to try a little harder to make the machinery of fame work for
him. His life did not become quite the star-studded multimedia event Li's and
Chai's did, but of all the dissidents he has remained in closest touch with the
cause of reform in China. His trip back there in 1992, and the fact that his
Democracy for China Fund is still functioning, has ensured that while his
dissident star has not shone brightest here in the West, it well may shine
Now Wu'er, once the most recognizable face of the movement, works in Taiwan
for Shen's foundation. Both say they are uncomfortable with the accolades and
responsibilities the West has conferred upon them. Both say they are trying to
push more quietly for change in China these days, by supporting underground
But in the end, what can Shen, Wu'er, or any of the famous four really do for
China? Not much, say their critics. In the pages of the Chinese-language
newspapers and magazines, the future of China, and the best way to bring
reform, is hotly debated. And the media stars of 1989 are not very highly
"I think people have become aware of their mistakes," says China
Focus's Liu Binyan, who was not allowed to write in China for 22 years
because he'd called for press freedom in the '50s. "When they were still in
China, they were too radical and self-centered, and acted as stars before the
world's media. When they arrived abroad, they behaved like aristocrats, seeming
to forget the ordinary people at home." He cites Wu'er Kaixi's behavior, and
the fact that Chai Ling is never without her little white dog, even at
Wu'er acknowledges the harm he did. "As painful as it is, I damaged the image
of dissidents in general," he laments. "The criticism I have caused to myself
also damaged the whole movement."
Other dissidents are less willing to find fault with themselves, even when
they come under very harsh criticism. Ding Zelin, a Beijing academic whose son
was killed by soldiers in 1989, is an activist and organizer in China who works
to raise money for victims' families. She has been critical of the students who
made it big in the West, for failing to use their considerable heft and
financial resources to support the efforts of activists back in China.
Last July, upon hearing about his great fame here, she wrote an open letter
to Li Lu in a Chinese magazine. "How come I have never received one iota of help
from the student leaders of that time, including you?" she wrote.
"Over the years, many of the families of the deceased, including myself,
received a huge amount of letters, faxes and greeting cards," her letter
continued. "How come I've never read any such expressions from the most
`outstanding' student leaders who are now abroad? There's only one explanation:
that you really have not taken to heart the group of people who shouldered the
heaviest sacrifice through the June 4 incident. Perhaps on your scales they're
just a zero."
Li Lu wrote back to Ding to tell her that "over the past seven years, I dared
not forget for one moment those who died on June 4th." But Li did not address
Ding's more important criticism: that Li and the other stars of '89 have
effectively abandoned those whom, in the West, they claim to represent.
What's at stake here is more than personal: debate over the dissident stars
speaks directly to China's future. And that debate has become more urgent of
late. Economic liberalization and Deng Xiaoping's death have lent an air of
inevitability to political reforms, though many of the older dissidents still
maintain they don't expect things to change significantly in their lifetimes.
Who will achieve those reforms? Not the most visible stars of the Chinese
dissident movement, say critics. They can actually hurt the cause by giving it
a bad name among Chinese: "They make Chinese keep their distance from so-called
democracy movements," says Guo, the former philosophy professor. "These stars
don't project a good image, so the Chinese don't want to be represented by
That point isn't lost on the Chinese government. In recent years, the party
has taken to defusing threats by simply allowing troublesome dissidents to
leave the country. After that, their influence on affairs in China is limited,
and their potentially decadent lifestyles make good propaganda fodder. A
dissident with a prominent public image is an ineffective dissident. A
dissident with a bad public image is a discredit to the cause -- witness
Wu'er Kaixi's rise and fall. The Chinese government has come to understand the
Western media machine, and its usefulness, quite well.
For the party, far more threatening than a former dissident in a remote
culture is a political prisoner like Wei Jingsheng, hero of the 1979 Democracy
Wall movement. Li Lu, with his celebrity friends and successful career, is
hardly a "Mandela figure," but Wei most certainly is: he exerts a powerful
symbolic force in China, his continued imprisonment a testament to the
Communist Party's capacity for oppression, undermining the diversionary effect
of Deng's sweeping economic reforms and modernization.
Wang Juntao, who participated in the movements of 1976 and 1979, is alert to
the perils of Western celebrity. One of the most important figures of the
Tiananmen Square demonstrations, Wang was sentenced to 13 years in prison for
his alleged role in planning the unrest. In 1994, President Clinton secured his
release by threatening to withdraw China's most-favored-nation trade status.
Now Wang is a visiting scholar at Harvard's Fairbanks Institute. He is a
slight, serious man of 36, an intellectual, and a former journalist at China's
Economic Weekly. He arrived here with much fanfare, did a couple of
congressional briefings, and set up the China Strategic Institute, in
Washington, DC, which helps law firms in China to bring human-rights suits
under Chinese law. He speaks halting English, but he is improving. He is also
capable of the occasional excellent quote. ("If you speak loudly, a lot of
journalists listen to you. I know American ways. They like heroes, especially
when they fight dictatorships and have stories from jail.")
He is potential Famous Dissident material, but he says he won't be going that
way. For Wang, as for many other dissidents who have chosen not to join
Dissident, Inc., keeping a low profile is more than a matter of modesty: it is
also a key to their strategies for changing China. "In my opinion," says Wang,
"if we want democracy inside China, we should rely on Chinese people. I want to
keep contact with my colleagues inside China, so I cannot be high-profile
outside China. Otherwise, the Chinese government will cut off my contact.
"In America," he explains, "if you want to get something done, you have to
keep a high profile." Then he adds, "If you are high-profile, you can get more
money, but you can do nothing in China."
Yvonne Abraham can be reached at email@example.com.