In 1989, Wang Dan was a history major at Beijing University. He was also one of the student leaders of the Tiananmen Square demonstration that ended in disaster when government troops and tanks fired into the crowd. Now a resident of the United States, Wang was in Prague this week at the invitation of the non-governmental Czech organization People in Need. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill spoke to the dissident about his views on the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, Chinese government corruption, and his vivid memories of 4 June 1989.
Prague, 23 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Wang Dan was part of the student leadership in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989 when the Chinese military fired into a crowd of pro-democracy demonstrators, killing hundreds, if not thousands.
Wang was jailed for nearly four years for his actions and released on parole in 1993. A few years later, Wang was imprisoned again, sentenced to 12 years for continuing to speak out against the government.
Wang was released from prison in April 1998 on medical grounds, shortly before a trip to China by former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Clinton had asked for Wang's release during a visit to Washington in 1997 by Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
Wang was granted asylum in the United States and is now, at 32, a student at Harvard University, studying Taiwanese history.
Wang was in Prague at the invitation of the non-governmental Czech organization Lide v Tisni, or People in Need. He spoke to its members about human rights and his views on the 2008 Summer Olympics, which will be held in Beijing.
Wang says his views differ from many of his colleagues on whether the International Olympic Committee (IOC) erred in awarding the 2008 Summer Olympics to Beijing.
Some of Wang's fellow dissidents believe the IOC should have denied China the games because of the country's continuing human rights abuses. But Wang told RFE/RL that holding the Olympics in China will focus the world's attention on the country and its policies and could, in the end, have a beneficial effect.
"I personally support [holding] the Olympics [in China] -- quite different from [some] other dissidents. I think it is a precious opportunity for the international community to influence Chinese civil society," Wang said.
Our correspondent asked Wang if he believes the Chinese government is liberalizing or regressing.
"It is liberalizing in a different way. It is liberalizing economically but not politically," he responded.
He said China's economic advances actually feed on corruption: "I do think that something must happen. Because just one thing makes a difference between Chinese and Western countries in economic reform. Because the basis for economic reform in China is corruption."
He continued: "Maybe that's amazing, but it is the truth. Many people [in the Chinese government] can benefit from corruption. That's why they support economic reform."
Wang said he keeps in touch with fellow dissidents who have not left China. They tend to agree, he said, that China's political incorrigibility endangers its economic openness.
"And social injustice [in China] is very serious. We worry about that when it destroys the achievement of economic reform, and seems without political reform. We also worry that corruption will lead to serious social disorder," Wang said.
Wang gave a vivid description of what it was like to be in Tiananmen Square on 3 and 4 June 1989. His understated narration makes the events he described seem even more harrowing. The official Chinese government count of how many people the soldiers killed is 36, but some Western references estimate that as many as 10,000 people died.
Wang's estimate falls somewhere in between: "Quite a lot of students got together in Tiananmen Square asking for democracy from the government," Wang said. "But far beyond our expectations, the government sent tanks and regular troops to crack down on the student movement. And I believe that about 2,000 people -- including students and citizens -- were killed."
In the past, Wang expressed what he called "moral guilt" over his involvement in the pro-democracy demonstrations, which resulted in the deaths of so many people. In his interview with RFE/RL, Wang called the Tiananmen Square massacre a historic tragedy in a country that has suffered many tragedies.
"So it was a big tragedy, even in Chinese history," Wang said.
He said the demonstrators knew from the start their behavior was risky, but he said they did not realize how risky: "At the very beginning of the movement, we knew it was sort of dangerous because we knew we were doing something against the government. The government had forbidden this. But we never knew the danger was so big."
RFE/RL: "At what point did you realize that the danger was escalating?"
Wang: "Well, when the government issued martial law, and they sent troops to surround the city, to surround Beijing city. Then we knew it was serious."
RFE/RL: "What did you do then?"
Wang: "And, well, we decided to insist on our goal, to insist on our struggle."
Wang: "And then we [organized] the citizens and the students against martial law. We blocked the way of the troops, and we blocked the way of the tanks into Tiananmen Square."
RFE/RL: "What happened then?"
Wang: "Then they opened fire.
RFE/RL: "No more warning?"
Wang: "No more warning."
Wang returns to the United States and his studies later this week. He said he is grateful that Clinton's intervention freed him from prison, but he said he is also sad that he had to leave his country.