Less than two years ago, Wang Chao-hua was in the thick of China's pro-democracy demonstrations, drafting demands, dispatching messengers, giving interviews to the Washington Post and Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and sleeping in a tent in Beijing's Tian An Men Square.
When the tanks rolled in and the democracy movement was crushed, Wang landed on the government's "21 most wanted" list of criminals and spent nine months in hiding.
Today, her life is still busy but far less tumultuous, filled with English studies, a housekeeping job and writing for a pro-democracy Chinese newspaper.
Home for the past few months has been a two-bedroom apartment in West Los Angeles, shared with a couple from China and a student from Hong Kong. The living room is sectioned off with two shower curtains, with Wang's private quarters on one side.
As she sits on a sagging plaid couch in the apartment and tells her tale, quietly and earnestly with the help of an interpreter, it is hard for an outsider to picture her as a leader of those massive protests.
Indeed, it seems difficult for Wang herself to imagine. "It was a dream," she says of the heady seven weeks in 1989 when democracy seemed an attainable dream.
Now, from her exile, she acknowledges frustration in trying to keep the cause alive. She belongs to a pro-democracy group, but she says: "There is no effective means by which the overseas movement can have any impact in China. The difficulty is, how to keep (the movement) running."
There is personal sadness, too. She has not seen her husband or son, now 8, for more than two years, and has little hope of doing so any time soon. She cannot return to China, and her husband and son have little chance of being allowed to leave.
And even now, Wang, 38, seems amazed by her journey--by her transformation from apolitical graduate student and mother to protester to political exile.
She was born in Beijing, the daughter of a prominent professor at Beijing University who himself had been an advocate of democracy in the 1940s, before the Communist triumph. Her mother was a high school teacher.
Fed daily propaganda at school, Wang made Mao Tse-tung her hero and joined the Communist Youth League. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao's campaign in the mid-'60s to destroy bourgeois influences, her father and many other academicians were branded counterrevolutionaries and imprisoned. Wang, then only 14, got caught up in the fervor, publicly criticized her father and volunteered to be shipped to northeast China to work on a collective farm.
As she grew to adulthood, however, Wang began to doubt the ideology she had held so sacred. Colleges were reopened, and she was assigned to study building construction in Xian and later assigned to a job. She started to have reservations about the government's control over its people's lives. She made peace with her father.
But it was a confusing time.
"We . . . were criticizing things we used to believe," she said. "So for awhile, I seemed to believe in nothing at all. I no longer believed in whatever I was told to believe, or wanted to go wherever I was told to go."
In the years after Mao's death in 1976, the government embarked on a fitful course under Deng Xiaoping of opening up to the outside world and introducing limited free enterprise. Wang got a job as a magazine editor.
She recalls seeing students rally in 1986 and 1987 for individual rights and educational reforms, but she figured it wouldn't accomplish much and "had nothing to do with me."
Her job, though, inspired her to return to school to study Chinese literature. At the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, she took courses in comparative cultures, where she quickly concluded that "when it comes to cultural discussions, you cannot avoid discussing political systems."
Wang read Max Weber, Hegel and Nietzsche, and realized that "propaganda and enlightenment (of the people) alone are insufficient.
"We must also change the system. . . . If you can draw a line separating the party and the government, then you no longer need to depend on incorruptible officials."
The April 15, 1989, death of Hu Yao-bang, the former Communist Party chief who had favored political liberalization, sparked immediate student demonstrations for democracy. Authorities became worried about the protests, and announced that Tian An Men Square would be closed for Hu's funeral April 22.
"I began to realize that the real reason (for closing the square) was they feared the students would demonstrate. . . . I was excited, knowing something big would happen," Wang said. She headed to the square on April 21, just "to be an interested onlooker."
As many as 100,000 people were there. "I had never seen so many students before," Wang said. "I thought this time, somehow we could get some concessions from the government. I began to think there could be reforms."
She volunteered to be her school's representative to the Beijing Tertiary Students Autonomous Assn., which was heading the movement, and was later chosen to be vice chairwoman of the group's governing committee.
"Our purpose was not to overturn the regime, but help the government reform," she said.
While student leaders such as Wuer Kaixi and Chai Ling provided impassioned speeches, Wang often sought a more moderate path. She argued against the hunger strike advocated by some of her associates, saying it would be too confrontational. But once it started, she felt she had to support it.
The most exhilarating moment of the seven weeks of protest, she said, came on May 17, when 1 million people crammed central Beijing in the largest demonstration ever. But it was also a warning that the movement was growing beyond the control of the student leaders.
By late May, the students' uppermost demands--to convene emergency sessions of the Communist Party Central Committee and the National People's Congress' standing committee--seemed unattainable, Wang said. Many of the Beijing students were weary, but wide-eyed youths from outlying provinces were pouring into town, eager to be a part of the action.
The square, occupied by thousands of protesters, was squalid with piles of garbage and the stink of unwashed bodies. With reports that troops were advancing on Beijing, "the situation was very tense," Wang said. She recalled thinking that it was time to look for ways to safely evacuate the students from the square and defuse the confrontation.
"I was hoping we could keep the channels of dialogue with the government open, and at the same time, hoped the student movement could be controlled effectively." Wang said. But, she said, the leaders were political neophytes and "not well organized."
"When things got out of control, I stopped thinking," she said. "You were forced to follow the emotionalized action of the crowd."
Wang rarely left the square and saw little of her family. Her husband and parents cared for her son. Her father, convinced that the movement would fail, urged her to think of the consequences to the family.
But she felt an overwhelming responsibility to the cause. Even if her father was right, she said, "I couldn't leave the students where they were."
Late on June 2, three people were killed in a traffic accident; the word was that they had been run over by a military van. Wang and other leaders issued a call for a general strike. Soldiers were marching toward Tian An Men, and for the first time, the troops used tear gas to try to disperse the crowds.
"We realized the government was starting to do something. But we never thought they would open fire or use the tanks," Wang said. "So we were thinking of using a sea of manpower to stop their entrance."
Wang was exhausted and feeling ill, and although she wanted to stay at the square, her colleagues persuaded her to take a three-day leave. On June 3, she headed for an acquaintance's home, about a half-hour's bike ride from Tian An Men.
She dreamed that she heard pops that reminded her of New Year firecrackers. When she awoke at dawn, she realized it had been gunfire.
Outside, pedicabs were carting away bloodied bodies. "I couldn't tell if they (the victims) were dead or not." The streets were littered with tanks and burned-out trucks and cars. Several people burst into tears as they told her how some citizens had been run down by the tanks.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of people had been killed as the army barreled into the city.
The next day, Wang donned makeup, sunglasses and a large straw hat, and was taken to an apartment building in the suburbs, where she hid for more than a month. Beijing summers are stiflingly hot, but Wang didn't dare even open a window.
On June 13, the government put out its list of the 21 Most Wanted, and Wang watched the photographs flash on the television screen. She was No. 14.
Wang is reluctant to go into detail about her nine months in hiding or how she escaped, because she does not want to endanger her helpers. In general terms, she describes how she was smuggled to several other cities and places--a home, apartments, office high-rises. At each spot, she was alone and was allowed contact with only one person.
Granted political asylum, she arrived in Los Angeles last March. A downtown Los Angeles church gave her money and helped find temporary lodging. In her year here, she has worked as a restaurant kitchen helper and as a live-in maid in Venice, and is now a part-time housekeeper at a West Los Angeles retirement home.
She spent two months at UC Berkeley as a "visiting scholar" (a nice title but an unpaid post, she remarks).
The goal for now is to get into graduate school and continue her studies, although first she must improve her English. Another problem, she said, is that she can't get her official transcript from China.
She spends three days and two nights a week at the Alhambra offices of the Press Freedom Guardian, a pro-democracy Chinese-language newspaper that was started in June, 1989. Her recent editorials have blasted the trials and 13-year prison sentences of intellectuals Wang Jun-tao and Chen Ziming, who were accused of being the "black hands" behind the Tian An Men protests and convicted of incitement to subvert the government.
The government, she said, overrates the strength of the democracy movement. "Organizing to overthrow the government? We didn't do anything like that. . . .
"It was only the masses trying to express their dissatisfaction. . . . It's not one single person or a small handful of people who get the masses to the streets. So giving strict punishment to one or two leaders--'black hands'--is irresponsible. If there's any such unrest, the government should be responsible."
She is on the supervisory committee of the Paris-based Federation for a Democratic China, which lobbies and helps political refugees, several dozen of whom have settled in Southern California.
But there's only so much that the movement in exile or diplomatic pressure can accomplish, Wang says. "The most important thing to be done is in China, not overseas."
Wang's father died while she was in hiding. She talks by phone to her husband and son every month, but is careful not to talk politics. Her husband remains closely watched by the government, but Wang says that because of her father's academic and political prominence, her family is unlikely to be punished.
If she could be treated "like an ordinary citizen. . . . then I'd be willing to go back" to China, she said.
But for now, she can only hope that someday, democracy will come to China. "For such an old civilization to go over all these processes will take many years--and lots of setbacks, too."