The Exile and the Entrepreneur

  • Share
  • Read Later

Just west of Beijing's Tiananmen Square, a 31-year-old entrepreneur named Wang Lichao strides into a property-management office to pick up the keys to the headquarters of his new telecommunications company. After five years of building an interior design firm, he is shifting into one of the country's hottest industries, serving as an ADSL subcontractor for China Network Communications. "There's much more money in this business because it's an emerging market," says Wang Lichao, with the easy confidence of an M.B.A., even though he has never attended college. "Just look at the growth numbers in ADSL lines in Shanghai. Beijing is next and we want to cash in on the boom." That night, Wang toasts his new business venture with a group of friends. But the person with whom he most wants to share his triumph no longer lives in Beijing, nor will he likely be back anytime soon. Wang Lichao picks up the phone and dials across the Pacific to talk to his cousin, the man he considers his best friend. After a few rings, an answering machine picks up. The soft, reedy voice once urged millions of mainland Chinese to press their government for democracy. Today, however, in stilted English, the voice tells the listener that Wang Dan is not at home.

Wang Dan has not really been home for six years. The same day his cousin makes his next move in the Beijing business world, the 35-year-old exile shuffles into a lecture hall at Harvard University, where he has been studying since he was released from a Chinese prison in 1998. Most of his days are spent cloistered in the library researching his thesis topic, a comparative study of politics in mainland China and Taiwan during the 1950s. This day, though, he emerges from the sequestered confines of academia to join several other student leaders from the Tiananmen era. Wang Dan is the most famous of them all. It was he who, as a 20-year-old student from Peking University, topped the list of most wanted "counterrevolutionaries" Beijing published after June 4, 1989. Even now, as the Tiananmen veterans splinter into factions of recrimination and guilt, Wang Dan has maintained an integrity that perhaps no other top dissident enjoys. Many spent years in jail, as did Wang Dan (nearly a decade), but no one is more a symbol of the crushed democracy movement than this singularly uncrushed individual. Not, of course, that Wang Dan necessarily wants to be in this crowded classroom facing the same monotonous questions from students, journalists and sinophiles about what he did 15 years ago. Even the panel discussion with fellow dissidents is like a mild form of torture. "Every year we do the same speeches, and I know everything they are going to say, every joke," he says. "Of course, they know what I'm going to say, too."

The melancholy of a life in exile may be all that awaits Wang Dan: the annual cycle of June 4 speeches, the energetic but mostly fruitless Internet campaigns, the applications to return home to China that are repeatedly denied. He has been forgotten in his homeland, just as the events themselves have been largely erased from the minds—and certainly the conversations—of average Chinese. Still, even though Beijing won't admit that hundreds of people, possibly thousands, died in the 1989 crackdown, some of the students' demands have been addressed. Increased official scrutiny of corruption, greater responsiveness to the needs of the people and, perhaps, even an unparalleled economic boom are all part of the June 4 legacy. But Wang Dan believes there is much more to be done and so he will persevere in what he sees as the greatest mission of all: bringing democracy to China. His latest petition drive condemns the sentencing of a fellow Tiananmen activist, Yang Jianli, to five years in jail, after Yang returned to China on a false passport.

Not all of Wang Dan's fellow exiles have remained so dedicated to—or obsessed with—their homeland. Some have reincarnated themselves as Internet entrepreneurs, stockbrokers, or in one case, as a chaplain for the U.S. military in Iraq. Several have been back to China to investigate potential business opportunities. Wang Dan has no quarrels with them for moving on from 1989, but he cannot. His work is what he considers his duty, his destiny. "I know the reason I am in America is because people died on June 4," he says. "If I stop my activities, then I will be dishonoring their memory." For that reason, he can never go home. Wang Dan can't even get to Hong Kong, which this year again denied him a visa, explaining, he says, that "inviting him would hurt the long-term interests" of the territory. The tragedy for Wang Dan is that enduring exile has not nourished his movement back home; he is hardly a Nelson Mandela who inspired antiapartheid protests even while spending 27 years imprisoned on Robben Island. Instead, Wang Dan's journey from Tiananmen Square to Harvard Square has brought an increasing irrelevancy, a feeling he articulates as "having to keep so much distance when I want to be so close."

In China, Wang Lichao is busy following not an American dream but today's Chinese one: getting rich is now increasingly seen as a birthright for anyone young, urban and smart. But even as he moves comfortably into the mainland's growing middle class, Wang Lichao is aware that there is something missing. It is not just the unfulfilled ideals of democracy and free speech for which his cousin fought and, in his quixotic way, is still fighting. Wang Lichao also misses the man himself. Tiananmen has torn their family apart. Most of Wang Dan's other cousins want nothing to do with such a disreputable character. But Wang Lichao has remained fiercely loyal to his cousin. "Growing up, they were like two halves," says Wang Dan's mother, Wang Lingyun. "Wang Dan is a city boy who became famous and Wang Lichao is a country boy who no one knows. But they have a connection you rarely see even in brothers." Now, each is like a shadow of the other: Wang Lichao stands for all that China has achieved, Wang Dan for all that remains to be done.

  1. Previous
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3
  5. 4