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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

5 Years Later, Tiananmen Dream Fades Away

BEIJING -- Five years after a phalanx of tanks and troops crushed their dreams of a more democratic China, the veterans of Tiananmen Square are only now coming out of their shell and daring to speak cautiously of new ambitions for the world's most populous country and for themselves. They were the young college students and the older, battle-scarred rebels, the Communist Party reformers and independent union leaders who converged on Beijing's sprawling Tiananmen Square in the months of April, May and June 1989 in a massive appeal for more freedom. On June 4 forces from the 27th Army moved into the city, killing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of citizens. In interviews, two dozen Tiananmen veterans, most of whom spoke on condition that their full names not be used, said they have put their political dreams aside and concentrated on their careers. However, a few said they still hope for a day when the nation's politically disenchanted once again take to the great central square of Beijing to urge reform of the Communist regime. "If Tiananmen happens again, I will support it," said Zhang, 21, who joined the demonstrators in the square and now works for a furniture-design company. For the most part, however, the politically repressive years after the crackdown have made the June 4 generation a much less idealistic lot, preoccupied with finding good jobs and starting families. "I'm more concerned about how to make a living, how to support a family and how to be a good newspaperman," said Wu, 24, a budding journalist. Three of the most prominent student leaders -- Chai Ling, Li Lu and Wuer Kaixi -- fled to the United States, where they have had considerable trouble adjusting to their new lives. One of the three, Li Lu, is an MBA graduate student at Columbia University who now believes that business enterprise is the best way to liberate China. "I firmly believe that business is the ultimate force for democratic change in China," he told a reporter from Business Week magazine in March. "Economic expansion is teaching people they can have a better life. Everyone is a capitalist in China now." After serving four years in prison, Beijing University history student Wang Dan, organizer of the Beijing Students Autonomous Federation that played a key role in the demonstrations, remains in Beijing under heavy police surveillance. Wang Dan, 25, continues to speak out in favor of democratic reforms. "On June 4," he said in a telephone interview, "the government injured not only demonstrators but all of the Chinese people. To heal those wounds and to regain popular support, the leadership must reverse the verdict on June 4." The two men charged by the Chinese government with being the "black hands" behind the Tiananmen protests, intellectuals Wang Juntao and Chen Ziming, were recently released from prison on medical parole as part of the government's effort to meet human-rights conditions set by the Clinton administration for the renewal of China's preferential trading status. But according to a report recently compiled by the international organizations Human Rights in China and Human Rights Watch/Asia, at least 200 more June 4 demonstrators are in jail. Five years after the crackdown, it is still dangerous to speak publicly about the events described by the government as a "counterrevolutionary riot." Despite the passage of time, the Chinese people still have not won back the freedoms they enjoyed in the years just before the crackdown, when economic reforms had begun to bring new wealth to the land. Naturally, this has caused many to wonder if China might not have made more progress in areas of civil rights and democratic reforms if the demonstrations in Tiananmen had never taken place, or at least not reached the point of confrontation that allowed hard-line political factions to call in the troops. "Every June 4 since then," Wu said, "my wife and I drink a lot of beer, smoke Marlboros and shout. I still can't believe that people died. This result was a lot worse than no result at all. Still, I'm convinced it wasn't useless. At least the government had to bring out its troops to stop us."