June 3, 2009 / 8:03 AM / 10 years ago

Web changes China and exile for Tiananmen leader

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Internet has helped Chinese dissident Wang Dan span the distance from his exile home in Los Angeles to Beijing, where 20 years ago he shot to fame as a leader of the Tiananmen democracy protests.

Wang — still youthful-looking at 40, but fleshier than when the reedy Peking University history major rallied the masses at Tiananmen — also believes information technology will help civil society change China in the ways for which he fought, even in the face of persistent official censorship.

“The Internet has changed the meaning of exile,” he said in a wide-ranging interview days before the 20th anniversary of the bloody crackdown in the heart of China’s capital.

“I don’t think we’re really in exile because I use the Internet, MSN, Skype, Twitter, Facebook ... so I have a lot of contact with mainlanders,” said Wang, who was jailed twice and has not been allowed back to China since being exiled in 1998.

Wang, who now is chairman of the Chinese Constitutional Reform Association and has a Harvard doctoral degree, spoke to Reuters some hours after chatroom protests broke out across China as a result of the blocking of access to Twitter and the e-mail service Hotmail in the mainland.

The clampdown came two days ahead of the 20th anniversary of the day when tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing to quell weeks of protest by students and workers.

Wang concedes the China of today is far richer, more powerful and influential than the country he left.

But he insists that Communist Party rule by force and deception remains the norm and “the basic characteristic of this government never changed.”

“The government has already lost control of activities of civil society on the Internet — that’s the hope,” said Wang, describing the World Wide Web as a key weapon in a struggle between state and society.

The Internet and social-networking technology means “more and more (of the) younger generation can find the truth, even though there’s a lot of censorship,” he said.

Underscoring Wang’s point, the media freedom watchdog group Reporters Without Borders published a report on Tuesday on tests of online censorship that found a full Chinese media and Internet blackout of the events of June 4, 1989.

A Chinese Internet search of popular search engine Baidu for “4 June” images brings a warning about Chinese law, while a search for articles produces only official Chinese statements about Tiananmen, the report said.

Wang stressed China’s savvy Web surfers know their way around Chinese censorship and says he remains optimistic about his cause.

He finds it disappointing that many Western governments, including the Obama administration in the United States, appear to have accepted China as it is in recognition of its economic and political clout.

“I hope Western governments can pay more attention to civil society — the China of the future,” Wang said.

Additional reporting by Deborah Lutterbeck; Editing by Eric Walsh and Bill Trott

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