XIAO QIANG was far removed from Tiananmen Square in the
summer of 1989.
He was living alone in a trailer deep in the Indiana woods. Life
revolved around detecting cosmic rays in the distant sky.
Then on June 4, 1989, the Chinese government opened fire on
Tiananmen's pro-democracy activists. The 27-year-old Chinese student
studying astrophysics in the heartland of America suddenly had a new
At a time when anyone who could was fleeing the Chinese capital or
going into hiding for fear of persecution, he did the equivalent of
running into a burning building: jetting off to Beijing.
"I was the only one going the wrong direction," says Xiao. "I took
with me a pair of shorts and a winter jacket, because I didn't expect to
come back real soon. I didn't know if I would be alive or in jail. If I
thought about it, I wouldn't have been able to go."
That was almost 10 years ago. Now 37, the one-time doctoral
candidate at the University of Notre Dame has turned a moment of passion
into a lifetime obsession. But his long march to right the wrongs that
plague his country has not taken place in China, but rather half a world
away, in a Manhattan high rise, where he leads an organization called
Human Rights in China.
"Human Rights in China is the most hated organization in China,"
says Xiao. "We put the issue on the map. It never goes away."
As its executive director for the past eight years, Xiao has helped
the nonprofit organization grow into an influential authority on China.
Founded by a group of Chinese scholars in 1989, the group monitors human
rights abuses and spreads human rights awareness inside and outside
China. Xiao's lanky frame and rebellious long hair have also become a
fixture at congressional hearings and international forums, where he
speaks as a champion of dissidents and go-between for them and their
"Xiao is a very articulate spokesman," said Grover Joseph Rees,
senior aide to the House Committee on International Relations, which has
organized a number of hearings where representatives of Xiao's group
have testified. "The organization is taken very seriously. They are
passionate, not crazy. They get their facts right."
The nerve center of Xiao's work is on the 33rd floor of the Empire
State Building. The corporate-looking office with an impressive view of
Manhattan is a great leap from the cramped quarters the group shared
with another nonprofit for about six years. But there's nothing fancy
about Xiao's work space. A flag inked with the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights hangs near his computer. A replica of the Goddess of
Democracy made by Tiananmen students (its torch-bearing arms were
snapped off in transit from China to his office) sits on his desk. Maps
of the world and of his country adorn his wall.
"We don't have military, political or economic power. All we have is
moral power and information against a tyranny," says Xiao.
THAT CONVICTION is being put to task more than ever this year. Priority
is the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown in June. In the works
is a series of high-profile commemorations, ranging from demonstrations
to symposiums to Internet projects. These activities are bound to annoy
Beijing, which has already cracked the whip in anticipation of this
year's other sensitive anniversaries. Among them are the 80th
anniversary for the landmark May 4th student movement against foreign
aggression and government apathy; the 20th for Deng Xiaoping's dramatic
economic reforms, and the 50th for the founding of the Communist nation,
the largest remaining in the world.
Beijing's desire to squash popular unrest is likely to lead to
further erosion of human rights, says Xiao. Though China signed the
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights last October, it
swiftly followed through with a new round of political crackdowns. Xiao
considers that a slap in the face for the Clinton administration, which
has had a policy of engagement that Xiao feels turns a blind eye to
human rights violations in favor of commercial and diplomatic interests.
In protest, Xiao's group last month asked Washington to suspend a
two-day human rights summit with China. It went on as scheduled.
Likewise, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's visit to Beijing went
on as planned Monday. It is expected to pave the way for the first
official U.S. visit of Chinese Premiere Zhu Rongji in April.
"The U.S. human rights policy against China needs to have some
teeth, which it doesn't right now," Xiao says.
Under his face-hugging black hair, Xiao is soft-spoken. Few would
suspect that he travels among power brokers, from the highest echelons
of Sino-American politics to the deepest trenches of a guerrilla war
against his country's authoritarian regime.
"It was hard for me to take him seriously in the beginning, perhaps
because it was the first thing I noticed," Rees, the congressional aide,
said of Xiao's long hair.
It, too, is an accident of history.
"It was the day China declared martial law, I was supposed to get my
hair cut," Xiao recalls. "I told my friends, `I'm not going to cut my
hair until they lift the martial law.` How long could it be? I thought.
But then it turned out, it's not only martial law, it's massacre. So I
decided to keep my hair long, to remember why I started doing this."
In June, 1989, that meant flying to Beijing, collecting eyewitness
accounts from victims and trying to smuggle their stories out. Two
months later he returned to the United States and joined the Chinese
student movement. Riding the high of international outcry, the students
staged mass rallies and traveled the world soliciting money and support.
AS THE movement's momentum waned, however, Xiao drifted between odd
jobs, selling flowers on the edge of highway ramps, delivering Chinese
take-out, applying to a graduate school to study public policy and
Focus came in 1991 when he joined Human Rights in China.
"In the beginning we were all suspicious," says Andrew Nathan, a
political science professor at Columbia University and a board member of
the nonprofit organization. "Xiao was a physics graduate student who
didn't have a lot of experience in this kind of thing. He has learned
how to run an NGO [nongovernmental organization] working two cultures at
once. He has a lot of Western constituency. He knows how to go to
cocktail parties and talk to blue-hair ladies. He knows how to operate
in Chinese circles as well, which involves a lot of political
complexity. But he's able to keep his eye on the ball and not get
suckered into divergence."
Over the years, Xiao's group has become quite polished and
professional. It has a budget of about $350,000 from membership dues and
grants, half a dozen staff members, a steady supply of bilingual
volunteers and a new office in the heart of Manhattan. Another one in
Hong Kong opened in 1996. Few start-up dissident groups can compete with
Xiao's impressive board of directors, composed of prominent China
experts and established human rights advocates. For government
testimony, American politicians know of few others to call on.
"They are not the only human rights organization, but in terms of
influence in America, probably they have the biggest," said Luo Daren,
chief of Mandarin services at Voice of America.
One fifth of the nonprofit's budget goes toward helping political
prisoners find legal recourse. Its most famous beneficiary is the
outspoken activist Wei Jingsheng, the poster child of the Chinese
democracy movement who spent 18 years in prison. The bulk of Western
reports on Wei's case was based on the trial documentation produced by
his staffers, Xiao says. Among the many petitions they drafted on behalf
of political prisoners, one for Wei had about 2,000 signatures,
including more than 20 Nobel laureates.
When Wei was finally released in 1997, it was Xiao's group that paid
for his flight to Detroit and picked him up at the airport. It was Xiao
who translated during his interviews with the press and American
officials. Viking recently published a book of Wei's prison letters
called "Courage to Stand Alone." It was translated by Xiao's wife, Kris
Torgeson, a press officer with Doctors Without Borders and a China
scholar. She and Xiao met while she was a volunteer in his office.
They married last summer, and their relationship has long been
punctuated by intervals of absence as Xiao jets around the country and
world lobbying for his cause.
So it was no surprise to Torgeson that Xiao was almost three hours
late to his own engagement party last summer. His plane was delayed by a
thunderstorm in Washington, D.C. As much as she wanted him there, she
knew there was no way her then husband-to-be would miss a chance to meet
with White House staff before Clinton's historic visit to China in July.
"I knew what I was getting into," Torgeson said last week while her
husband was away in India meeting with local activists as well as the
Dalai Lama. "It's not a 9-to-5 job. We get calls all night long. We have
a kind of 24-hour center in our home. People who are in trouble call,
journalists on deadline call. There's a 12-hour time difference. I'm
used to it."
While most Chinese people who know of Xiao's work admire his
perseverance, they caution against an overdependence on punitive
pressures from the West. Real change has to come from within China, says
Wang Juntao, a dissident studying comparative politics at Columbia. He
says pro-democracy activists have lost some of their initial grass-roots
support in China, because their tactics, particularly the repeated
appeal for trade sanctions, can turn off the Chinese public.
"The people don't need you to tell them what's wrong with their
government," says Wang. "Not giving China most-favored-nation status
hurts the ordinary people, not the people in charge."
Recognizing the need to raise more awareness among ordinary Chinese,
Xiao says his group has been trying to broaden the definition of human
rights. Members consider themselves pioneers in expanding the concept of
human rights beyond politics - and its prisoners - to include social
and economic rights.
Two timely problems they've been drawing public attention to are the
controversial Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze River, which calls
for the relocation of 1.7 million people, and the plight of millions of
migrant workers flooding to urban centers already buckling from massive
layoffs. These are ripe conditions, Xiao says, in which to demand
"People want a better quality of life that will naturally include
political freedom," says Xiao. "Everybody in China complains about
corruption. Why do you have corruption? Because of absolute power. How
can you prevent that? Free press, elections or an independent judicial
system. If you have accountability, corruption would be fundamentally
less. But China doesn't have these things."
Fluent in English, savvy with the media and connected in
Washington, Xiao could have turned to more lucrative jobs. But like much
else in his life, history seems to steer him to the least expected.
Born to parents who are both scientists, Xiao dreamed of becoming
"Einstein Number Two." But growing up during China's tumultuous Cultural
Revolution of 1966-1976, which ravaged the country with political
persecutions, Xiao did not receive much formal schooling as a child. For
six years he lived with his parents, who were banished to the
countryside for "re-education." His parents had to leave his younger
brother behind with relatives, fearing they couldn't take care of him in
the countryside. Ironically, when Xiao shocked his parents with his
surprise visit in 1989, his brother had just gone into hiding for waving
protest flags in Tiananmen Square. Xiao rarely sees his brother, who now
lives in New Zealand.
Childhood was measured by the lonely chores of a peasant. Cutting
grass. Picking corn. Collecting horse manure. Xiao was finally able to
go to school in his teens when he left his parents on the farm and
moved in with his grandparents in Beijing. Desperate to learn, he read
everything he could get his hands on, especially math and science books.
It paid off when he won a national math contest, which launched him into
the country's premiere science university. In 1986 he won a scholarship
to study astrophysics in the United States.
The PhD was almost in his hands when Tiananmen sent him down a new
"I took it personally," says Xiao. "Tanks and machine guns killed
people and life goes on? No way."
With this twist of fate, he may never see his family again in
China, or make enough money to move out of his modest apartment in
Astoria, Queens. Since he left China in 1986, he has seen his parents
only once, during his daredevil trip back in 1989. He never went back,
not for his wedding or his mother's funeral.
"It's sad I don't really know my parents," he says, his voice
trailing to a near whisper. "I help so many people, but I was not able
to help them. I was not there to help when she died."
Deep inside, Xiao is very much a product of his generation, a
sentimentalist with a feverish love-hate relationship with his
birthplace. No matter how hard he agitates, there's always a place in
his heart for the country he calls home. For the same reason, he holds
on to his Chinese citizenship and travels with his green card and asylum
papers. His little red Chinese passport has expired. He hasn't renewed
it, fearing the government would confiscate it.
"I love my country so much I am against everything that's wrong
there," says Xiao, tears welling in his eyes. "Until June 4th, I didn't
know it was so deep in me. That day I made a personal commitment. I
would do everything I can until those souls can rest in peace. I will do
this until I can personally go back and lay flowers on Tiananmen