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Human Rights in China become a major influence in America's policy on

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

getting rejected.

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


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