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."