HE COULD EASILY PASS for one of the tens of thousands of young Chinese studying at American universities. His smooth skin, boyish looks, and modest demeanor might be those, say, of an astrophysics researcher at M.I.T. But though Wang Dan, 29, earnestly stresses his desire to study in the United States (modern Chinese history, no less), his future won't be that of the typical graduate student. As Bill Clinton prepares to fly to Beijing on June 25 for another symbolic embrace of China's Communist leadership, Wang Dan could teach the president much about China's democracy movement and why it is central to U.S. national interests.

Less well known in the global arena than the famous dissident Wei Jingsheng, 47, who was suddenly exiled to America in November 1997, Wang Dan is far more familiar inside China. He was catapulted to prominence in May 1989 as a student leader during the tense stand-off between the Beijing authorities and pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. In the brief halcyon weeks before the June 4 crackdown that year, the Chinese press was nearly free, and Wang's face was seen on television and in the newspapers. His arrest weeks after the massacre was hailed by the regime as a triumph over the "hooliganism" of the student movement.

Wang's relatively mild sentence -- just four years -- may have reflected the regime's uncertainty about how to deal with him. Unlike other famous student leaders, such as Chai Ling and Wu'er Kai Xi, Wang had consistently sought to head off confrontation in the square. In late May, he had tried to persuade the students simply to declare victory and leave. Also, Wang was very much part of the Beijing establishment. He had been a bona fide student of history at Beijing University, where both his parents were teachers. He had not pilloried China's Communist leadership in public wallposters, as had Wei Jingsheng, a Beijing zoo electrician, during the Democracy Wall movement of 1978-79.

But if they though they could co-opt Wang through relatively mild treatment, China's leaders miscalculated. Within weeks of being freed in 1993, Wang was writing articles on the need for democracy in China and communicating with democratic activists who had escaped to the United States. He even gave an interview to Beijing Spring, an anti-Communist periodical based in New York, which was published in March 1995. That was probably the last straw for the Chinese authorities. They arrested Wang two months later, held him incommunicado for 17 months, then summarily sentenced him to 11 years for "plotting to overthrow the government."

But Wang did not serve out his term. Instead, last April, he was bundled without warning onto a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines jet -- just as Wei Jingsheng had been -- and sent to America "on medical parole." His release was China's way of rewarding Washington for dropping its annual resolution criticizing China at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. Beijing may have gambled that, as with Wei Jingsheng, once the publicity surrounding the release died down, Wang Dan would cease to matter in China's internal political equation.

That could prove to be another miscalculation. Though he lacks Wei Jingsheng's intense bitterness towards China's Communists, Wang represents a strand of opposition to the regime with deeper roots in Chinese political thought, harking back to the liberal activists whose slogan "Mr. Science and Mr. Democracy" was popular at Beijing University in the 1920s. Wang began his high-school years as an ardent Communist, getting up at 4.30 A.M. to study Mao and receiving accolades, he says with a smile, "as a model cadre of the Communist Youth League." It was reading restricted-issue Chinese translations of essays by Soviet dissidents, notably Andrei Sakharov, Wang says, that opened his eyes: "Once I had access to a different system of thought, the contrast made me realize what a mistake I had made before." At Beijing University, he learned Lincoln's Gettysburg Address by heart for the power of its statement of democratic ideals.

Even before his second arrest, Wang was no advocate of sudden political change. "We should clear a new path and devote ourselves to building a civil society by focusing our efforts on social movements, not political movements, self-consciously maintaining a distance from political power and political organs," he told Beijing Spring in the 1995 interview. He went on: "I feel that society still needs idealists, people who are working to sacrifice themselves to uphold the basic ideals of freedom and democracy." Intellectuals, in particular, have a duty to speak out against abuses of power, he feels; but today, "they have given up their moral responsibility" and been co-opted by the regime for economic advantage. And maybe not just inside China: Fellow Tiananmen Square leader Chai Ling, who does not share Wang's continuing anguish over the Tiananmen deaths, is currently completing her MBA at Harvard.

In accordance with his emphasis on gradually readying society for democracy, Wang welcomes U.S. trade with China and a certain crass consumerism by ordinary Chinese. "In a consumer society, people at least care about something," he points out, contrasting this with the hyper-politicized China of the 1950s and '60s, when children denounced their parents for deviating from the party line. What matters to Wang is that China's intelligentsia recover the democratic idealism that inspired it early in the century -- and without which, he believes, China could develop into a dangerous rogue state.

Much as he regrets the hundreds of deaths at Tiananmen Square nine years ago, Wang believes that the crackdown changed China forever. "Before Tiananmen, most Chinese had a very vague idea about democracy," he says. "But after 1989, most of the people had a good idea what it was. The fact that the government used military violence to crush the democrats led to the complete abandonment of any illusions about the government."

Like almost all Chinese intellectuals and democratic activists in the past 100 years, Wang is fascinated by America's democratic tradition. He mentions the Mayflower Compact of 1620 and the role of religious freedom in fostering this country's democratic culture. Now enjoying the liberty to read and converse as widely as he wishes, he is immersed in the practice as well as the philosophy of freedom. His ambition, he says, is to be president of Beijing University. But first he is investing his energies in the work of making China free.

David Aikman, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, covered the Tiananmen Square massacre for Time.

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