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Change in China, Change in L.A.

Times Staff Writer

Wang Dan is still one of the most recognizable faces from the 1989 crackdown in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square that ended with the deaths of hundreds of unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators.

When he grabs meals at his favorite Southern Chinese restaurant in Arcadia, fellow patrons recognize him and say, “You’re a hero.”

When he stood waiting for a friend on the UCLA campus recently, a student walking by stopped abruptly to show that she was carrying a book about him and then posed with him for a photograph.

And after finishing a news conference at the Chinese Cultural Center in El Monte last month, reporters from the local Chinese-language media formed a line to ask him for his autograph.

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On the 16th anniversary of the crackdown today, Wang very much remains a celebrated symbol of resistance to many Chinese Americans.

But the movement he helped lead appears weaker than ever.

Some say the dissidents have been rendered afterthoughts under the glow of China’s surging economy.

The shift is one of the strongest reflections of how much the view of the communist government has changed within Southern California’s Chinese community, the largest in the nation.

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Until recently, many Taiwanese or Chinese from Hong Kong maintained an icy attitude toward Beijing. Some came to the U.S. to escape communism, and others have relatives who have suffered at the hands of the Chinese government. Tiananmen Square only hardened the attitudes.

But economic reforms after 1989 triggered a thaw. China is now Southern California’s premier trading partner, accounting for $85.6 billion in two-way trade last year, nearly twice as much as the second-largest partner, Japan.

The mainland Chinese presence can now be felt from the restaurants of Monterey Park to the Chinese state news channel offered on local satellite television.

“When people talk about China, they talk about it in glowing terms,” said Charlie Woo, chief executive of Megatoys and a member of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce board. “The democracy movement is more than a decade old now. Some of their grievances about the quality of life have improved because of the economy. The pressure on [Beijing] is a lot less now.”

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The change has had a marked effect on the dissident community.

Democracy groups that used to boast hundreds of members have fractured into shells of their former selves.

Former activists have been confronted with the practical needs of making a living in their new country, leaving them with little time to continue lobbying for liberalism in China. Some have even found themselves working for companies engaged in business with their homeland, forcing them to obscure their activist pasts.

In Los Angeles, the usual candlelight vigil with balloons and songs will occur outside the Chinese Consulate to mark the anniversary -- just not with the thousands of people who used to attend in the 1990s. Organizers say they will be lucky to get 150.

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“The numbers drop every year, but you start to see the same faces,” said Cheng Zhen, a hunger striker well known for falling asleep during a rare audience with then-Premier Li Peng. “It’s only for the people with strong beliefs.”

These days, Cheng works for a Chinese bank in Southern California whose superiors told her not to identify herself for fear it might jeopardize business with China.

Though she organizes the vigil each year, it’s almost the only form of activism she has time for.

“I have a daughter and a family to support,” said Cheng, 39, of Temple City. “I work 10 to 12 hours a day and have a mortgage to pay.”

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Some of the dissidents who immigrated to the United States experienced the highs of celebrity in the early 1990s but have seen their renown fade, along with the fortunes of the Chinese democratic movement. Some have found themselves defending their embrace of American life.

Chaohua Wang, 53, has stopped publishing a newsletter and a website on democracy in China to finish her dissertation at UCLA on modern Chinese intellectual history. She has also grown interested in labor movements in Latin America and watched as friends she considered supporters of the democratic movement have returned to China to seek work in educational and research fields.

As for the democracy movement, “I feel a lack of a link,” she said.

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Many activists point to the odyssey of Chai Ling, whose post-Tiananmen life has been chronicled extensively in the media.

Chai was named one of the “21 Most Wanted Beijing Student Leaders” by the Chinese government, and her teary-eyed speeches from Tiananmen Square captured the attention of television viewers across the world.

She escaped from China in 1990, spoke to officials in the White House and was honored at the homes of actors Sarah Jessica Parker and Robert Downey Jr.

Today, she runs an Internet software company in Cambridge, Mass., and has few ties to the dissident community. Chai did not reply to requests for an interview.

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Wang Dan tries to be philosophical about the waning movement. China Reborn, a dissent group he helped form, has dwindled from more than 100 members to 15.

He spent years in jail for famously leading thousands of protesters in Beijing when he was a 20-year-old university student.

“The dissident movement used to be very strong,” said Wang, now 36. “People used to be very supportive, and now they’ve lost interest. It’s natural.... I’m a history student; I know democratic movements come in waves. We’re at the bottom of the wave right now, but I’m looking forward to the peak.”

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Wang, who has been a visiting scholar at UCLA for the last two months and is finishing his dissertation at Harvard, is one of about 10 Tiananmen veterans that reside in L.A. at any given time.

He believes that the rapid economic changes and the growing professional class in China will eventually do what his movement has tried to do: force Beijing to democratize.

“All we can do is continue to study and learn how to operate in society,” Wang said from a popular Westwood Boulevard coffeehouse that has become his daily workplace. “We can be the bridge between Western countries and China one day. I never expected we could be a strong political force from here.”

Sixteen years ago, he was considered a major political threat to the Chinese Communist Party. With a bullhorn in front of his cherubic face at Tiananmen, he tried to reason with the government to allow more freedoms at a time when new economic reforms were leaving many citizens uneasy about their futures.

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The brazen protest initially cost him four years in prison before he was rearrested in 1995 for continuing to foment the democracy movement. He was let go in 1998 -- just before a visit to China by President Clinton and after the U.S. agreed to pull support from a United Nations resolution condemning China’s human rights record.

Wang still wants to return to China one day and reunite with his family.

For now, he seems to have adjusted to life in the U.S. He wears Hawaiian shirts, Buddhist beads and a steel Agnes B watch. He frequents Las Vegas, has a weakness for shopping, particularly at Armani Exchange, and feels at home in the San Gabriel Valley, though he lives on the Westside to avoid being mobbed by fellow immigrants.

But June 4 puts the dissident in a different frame of mind.

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“It’s a painful remembrance,” he said. “I cannot forget it. I will do everything in my life to get that date reevaluated.”

The date can be viewed as either a way to solidify the democracy activists’ base or a reminder of how much people have forgotten about 1989.

Wang intends to fast today. He is in Taipei for the Tiananmen Square anniversary at the invitation of the mayor. While in Taiwan he plans to give speeches and use the time to research his dissertation about the early political struggles of the island nation.

“I don’t think [Beijing] views me as a threat,” he said. “Not now, but maybe in the future.”

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