China's Pro-Democracy Leader Struggles in U.S.


Of all America's wonders, nothing has impressed Wu'er Kaixi like the yellow school bus.

"It's great," said the 21-year-old student, one of the pro-democracy leaders in Tian An Men Square. "When it puts on its lights, every other vehicle must stop. It shows that in America, the most important thing is the person.

"In China, no one respects people."

Wu'er, who was put on China's most-wanted list after the army shot its way into Beijing in June and ended the protests, is trying to continue the fight from half a world away. It hasn't been easy.

At 1:30 a.m. on a bitterly cold December night, he sat slumped in a chair in his shabby suburban Boston office, painfully practicing a speech in English.

"We must remember our brothers and sisters who died during the fight for democracy in Tian An Men Square," he read, coached by a Chinese student with better command of English.

His more difficult struggle, however, is mastering the subtleties of leadership, something that seemed simple enough amid the marching masses in the square.

There, crowds rallied to the personal magnetism of Wu'er, a Uighur minority student at the Beijing Teachers' University. Classmates hailed him on campus as lingxiu --leader--and foreign journalists flocked to his tiny, ill-lit dormitory room, jammed with the bunks of eight students.

Impulsive, dramatic, boastful and impassioned, Wu'er was the student most often the focus of foreign television cameras in the seven weeks of marches and hunger strikes. He seemed to recognize no authority: At a meeting of student leaders with Premier Li Peng, he even accused the premier of being rude.

The cameras followed him in exile--to Paris, where he fled via Hong Kong during the long summer of arrests in China, and to Somerville. Here he heads the American office of the Front for a Democratic China, the main group formed by Chinese dissidents to continue their movement.

American reporters grant him celebrity status, but some fellow Chinese resent the attention and accuse Wu'er of un-Chinese vanity.

Many young Chinese abroad look to him for leadership. Older exiles, traditionally paternalistic, lecture him in public for immaturity.

The Chinese-language press in the United States, financed from Taiwan and mindful of financial scandal in past exile groups, has tried to find evidence of money mishandling by Wu'er and his aides.

The strain shows. In the group's office, Wu'er looked harried as he fielded telephone requests for speeches. Three equally young volunteers dashed back and forth, asking him about the draft agenda for a Front conference.

"It's harder than in Beijing," he said. "In Beijing, they tell you everything--what you can do and can't do. Here, for everything you have more than 100 choices."

Wu'er is taking courses in English and Chinese literature as a non-degree student at Harvard. "It's too hard to me sometimes," he said in English learned almost entirely since June and still far short of his needs. "I understand about 30% to 50% of my classes."

Wu'er's health has suffered. He has collapsed several times in public, most recently after a Harvard rally marking six months since the June crackdown.

His closest aide, Pierre Fournier, a French student who met Wu'er in Paris, said doctors found nothing seriously ailing Wu'er but did note a rapid heartbeat.

"It's nothing," said Wu'er. Peering into a mirror at his pale face and dark-shadowed eyes, he grimaced and then grinned. "I've lost weight, I'm happy."

An article in the Chinese-language World Journal in November first broached the possibility of improper use of donations to the student movement. The paper said Wu'er, who receives no formal salary, accepted some donations for personal use instead of giving everything to the Front. It accused him of staying at expensive hotels and furnishing the Somerville office lavishly. Other reports said he should donate speech fees, reportedly as high as $10,000, to the Front.

"Wu'er doesn't really pay attention to details. He should have been more careful," said Harvard student activist Luo Zhexi. He and other students said Wu'er was innocent of legal or moral blame and was merely inexperienced. He is now accounting for all money, they said.

His office looked far from luxurious. The donated second-hand desks were deeply scratched, and volunteers wore thick sweaters in the poorly heated rooms.

Wu'er has tried to ease the tension by retreating a bit.

"I don't want to be a media star," he said. "That's not what we wanted in Tian An Men."

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