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The rusty 1971 Mercedes with a peeling American flag on the dashboard squeals down Ocean Boulevard in Santa Monica, California. In the front seats are two of Tiananmen Square's most famous dissidents: Wang Dan and Wang Chaohua (no relation to Wang Dan), an older student leader whose plea for moderation was drowned out by radicals and who is nowadays pursuing a Ph.D. in modern Chinese literature at UCLA. Wang Chaohua drives with the careless insouciance of a Beijing taxi driver, while Wang Dan looks decidedly nervous. "She's a road warrior," he says, trying out an English idiom. "I'm quite scared of her driving." "You're terrified of too many things," Wang Chaohua retorts. "Stay cool." Later, Wang Dan remarks more seriously: "It's true, I am scared by many things. But one thing that doesn't scare me is the Beijing [central] government."
The pair are heading to a lunch with several other Tiananmen activists, who gather yearly for commemorative events around June 4. Despite their differing opinions on how to handle the aftermath of Tiananmen, the dissidents are cordial as they chow down at the Mandarin Shanghai Restaurant in the Los Angeles suburb of Arcadia. None of the other Chinese patrons in the eatery recognize them, which one exile says is fine because sometimes Chinese Americans castigate them for ruining perfectly good business opportunities with talk of human rights. In Beijing, of course, the dissidents might go equally unrecognized, not just because of their widening paunches and graying hair but because most of the young generation there is ignorant of what happened 15 years ago.
It is only when they head to a talk organized by a Hong Kong-based civic organization that things heat up. The 75-plus crowd is filled with groupies who treat the Tiananmen veterans like rock stars, and Chinese patriots who feel the 1989 crew was nothing more than a misguided group of idealists. Other critiques are more personal. In the Q.-and-A. session, a former Tiananmen activist screeches: "Why is it that Falun Gong gets so much attention and can hold big demonstrations in front of the Chinese embassy, while we do nothing? Are we all such cowards?" Wang Danwho spends most of his free time writing petitions, testifying in front of Washington committees, and even organizing a lawsuit against Li Peng, a former Chinese government leader who helped order the crackdown against studentssmiles politely and declines to answer the question. Later, he says with uncharacteristic vehemence: "Things like that make me want to disappear forever."
Apart from the flurry of activity around June 4, Wang Dan's life is that of any doctorate student at Harvard. Before heading to the library, he takes a run beside the Charles River and wonders how his U.S. jogging fetish would be regarded in China. At mealtime, he slurps down noodles at a Chinese restaurant in Harvard Square and estimates that he has personally contributed to the demise of a hundred fowl at a Peking-duck restaurant in Boston. "We exiles joke that the only part of us that has remained patriotic is our stomach," he laughs. The rest of Wang certainly seems attached to America: he loves shopping (Armani Exchange is his favorite clothier) and he extols the virtues of Las Vegas. "It's got fabulous hotels," he says. "Just fabulous."
Wang Dan's two-bedroom apartment is packed with 3,000 books, but he pines for the others he had to leave back home. Like his mother, who is also a historian, Wang Dan feels a need to intellectualize what he did, using books to explain the big important points. He can read books about the events of 1989, write historical theses, and act, all in all, like a true academic. Still, in front of Wang Dan's bed hangs an oversize picture of that solitary man who stopped a column of tanks on June 5, 1989, before disappearing from the record books. The poster is a form of mental discipline. "I'm far away from China," Wang Dan says, "but I look at the picture every day to remind myself why I am here and what still needs to be done."
For Wang Lichao, of course, Tiananmen Square is just a car ride away. Even though he wasn't in Beijing during 1989, he has seen enough pictures of the bloodshed to want to stay away. But last month a friend from Heze came to visit, and Wang Lichao obligingly showed him the sights: the Forbidden City, Mao's embalmed body and, finally, they walked the great expanse of Tiananmen Square together. Fifteen years after the People's Liberation Army sent in tanks to crush the student democracy movement, everything has changed about Tiananmenexcept the square itself. Today, the most visible features are the billboards for Jianlibao sports drink and KFC that ring the square, vying with Chairman Mao's portrait for brand recognition. Old men with their rosy-cheeked grandchildren fly kites, while peasants from the countryside gawk at the vast space and at the miniskirted Beijing girls sashaying past. Just down Chang'an Boulevard, where soldiers had lobbed stun grenades into the crowds of fleeing students, a new glass-and-titanium National Theater designed by a Frenchman is taking form. A few blocks east, a soaring shopping mall boasts Nike, Max Mara and, of course, Starbuckssince caffè mochas have supplanted tea as the hottest drink in town. Even the nearby Ministry of Public Security, whose members still harass relatives of the Tiananmen veterans, is being renovated, with a flock of cranes rising above the construction.
Walking around Tiananmen, Wang's friend was awed and humbled by the enormous square. Not once, though, did he ask about what happened 15 years ago, and Wang Lichao didn't bring it up. The massacre is still taboo in mainland China. Even Wang Dan's grandmother didn't know about his exact role in the protests, and she died wondering why her favorite grandson never came to visit anymore.
But Wang Lichao thinks about the events all the time. "I pass by all these places where so many students died," he says, "and I wonder if I can find a bullet or some other evidence to prove it really did happen."
He hasn't found anything, but Wang Dan's mother lived with evidence for a decade. After 1989, Wang Lingyun worked as a historian on the fifth floor of the Revolutionary Museum near Tiananmen Square, and the sun streaming into her office always refracted into shattered rays because the window glass was cracked. Some time on the night of June 3-4, an errant bullet had made its way through the window and tore into the opposite wall. Even when she retired in 1999, the hole in the wall had still not been repaired. The hole in her family has not been mended, either. Wang Dan and Wang Lichao have come a long way since 1989, but they are now following roads that are taking them further and further apart. "They were so close as kids," says Wang Lingyun. "Who would have known things would have turned out like this?" Indeed, when the city kid and his country cousin were lazing in that persimmon tree, they could scarcely have imagined that they would become the exile and the entrepreneur, twin legacies of an almost forgotten spring.