"Living in exile, we have to keep our faith that there will be democracy some day," said Wu'er Kaixi, who gained fame as a pajama-clad hunger-striker who harangued then-Premier Li Peng and now is a political commentator in Taiwan.
Though the protest leaders have built new lives and Chinese society has changed drastically since 1989, communist leaders are still intensely sensitive about the protests that drew thousands to vast Tiananmen Square in the center of Beijing to demand a more open system and an end to corruption.
The government is trying to prevent any commemoration of the 15th anniversary on Friday of the military attack on the demonstrators that killed hundreds and perhaps thousands. Activists and relatives of the dead have been detained or ordered out of the
Now in their 30s, protest leaders who escaped after the crackdown are still labeled traitors and threatened with arrest. Others served prison terms and left China to start over.
Wang Dan, a principal strategist of the protests, spent seven years in prison. Now 35, he is working toward a doctorate at Harvard University with a thesis on Chinese politics and history and the democratic movement in Taiwan, the self-ruled island that had one-party rule in 1989 but is now a thriving ethnic Chinese democracy.
Chai Ling, a student leader known for her impassioned speeches, runs a software firm in the United States. Fellow demonstrator Li Lu heads an American investment company.
Since 1989, the government has carried out changes demanded by the protesters. It scrapped rules that dictated where Chinese could live or work and even whom they could marry. Economic growth has given millions new power over their lives, while Beijing is cracking down on rampant corruption that it once denied existed.
Beijing is experimenting with what it calls "village democracy," with nonpartisan local elections that let tens of millions of Chinese pick officials for low-level posts. President
Hu Jintao, who took power last year, has called for more "socialist democracy" - though that means making the Communist Party more attentive to public needs, not allowing real opposition parties.
Real power is still held by the closed, secretive ruling party, which prohibits independent political activity and has imprisoned or driven nearly all of China's active dissidents into exile.
"The 1989 movement was instrumental for the country's economic development today," Wu'er, 36, said by phone from New York. "Fifteen years has marked tremendous progress economically, but still the biggest obstacle is political."
The government defends the crackdown and continued one-party rule as a key to China's economic success. It rejects pleas to reverse its verdict that the protests were a counterrevolutionary riot.
The protests were "political turmoil no matter what you call it," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said this week. He defended the crackdown as playing "a very good role in stabilizing the situation, which enabled China to develop its economy and make contributions to the peace and development of the world."
Liu refused Thursday to say whether the student exiles would be able to return to China without being arrested.
"China is going to handle the cases in accordance with relevant laws," he said.
Wu'er said he, Wang and other 1989 veterans plan to protest Thursday in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington.
Wu'er was on the government's list of 21 most-wanted pro-democracy campaigners. He was smuggled out through Hong Kong, first to France and then the United States before settling in Taiwan.
"It was never meant to be easy, challenging other people's supreme power," he said.
Zhang Boli, also on the wanted list, escaped in 1991.
"My personal wish is to go back to China," Zhang, 40, said last week from Washington. "This, I believe, is also my right. ... I believe all I have is still in China. It's very sad."
Wang Juntao, who was sentenced to 13 years in prison but released in 1993, is in the United States pursuing a doctorate in political science at Columbia University.
He said he is studying how a democratic government can be established in China.
"If we are ready for change, and if we want change, then we will finally get change," he said from his home in New Jersey. "I believe that one day in the future, China will launch a new democracy with a peaceful vision."
He added: "I still have hope. I still have my dreams. Otherwise, I would not have stayed in jail or paid that kind of cost."
Another veteran dissident, Frank Lu, lives in exile in Hong Kong and runs a one-man news agency that collects information on Chinese activists and funnels it to news organizations.
Lu was detained at 17 for writing an essay on political reform. In 1989, he spent a year in jail for organizing student protests in central China in support of the Tiananmen demonstrators.
Lu, 39, longs to see his parents back in Hunan province.
Still, he said, "I have absolutely no regrets."
By Audra Ang