He's the Voice of the Tiananmen Generation

In China, says activist-turned-capitialist Li Lu, business has become the ultimate expression of individuality.

Eight years ago, Li Lu, a young physics and economics scholar from Nanking University, stood on the front lines of protest against China's dictatorship. As deputy commander of the student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, he faced tanks, tear gas, and a two-month manhunt that forced him to flee to the United States.

Today Li Lu stands on the front lines of global finance. As a young deal maker in the Los Angeles office of Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette (DLJ), Li, 31, faces the pressures of life in the high-stakes, 24-hour-a-day world of investment banking.

Li's transformation from democratic activist to global capitalist is jarring — and illuminating. "The most important legacy of Tiananmen is a new generation of Chinese people who have embraced a spirit of independence and are dedicated to building a free and democratic society," he says.

The Tiananmen generation also understands that business, not politics, is the force driving social change: "Politically, China suppresses its people," he says. "But because the government allows some freedom in economic matters, business has become the ultimate expression of individuality."

That's certainly true for Li Lu. He had a childhood of unimaginable hardship. Communist authorities sent his parents to a reeducation camp during the Cultural Revolution, when Li was just six months old. His grandfather, a prominent intellectual, was already in jail. So Li moved between orphanages and foster homes until he was sent to live with a family in a coal-mining region.

In 1976, when he was just 10, his entire foster family was killed in a massive earthquake. Li was reunited with his parents. A decade or so later, he embraced political activism, landed on China's Most Wanted list, and fled for his life.

Li arrived in New York City unable to speak a word of English. But he became a darling of the celebrity-as-activist crowd, and his new high-profile friends (especially Trudie Styler, Sting's wife) took up Li's cause and got him on his feet. He entered Columbia University, published a memoir that was made into a movie, and delivered lectures across the country.

In 1996, six years after he enrolled, Li became the first student in Columbia's history to earn degrees from the undergraduate college, the law school, and the business school simultaneously. To celebrate this accomplishment, media mogul John Kluge threw Li a graduation bash. Wall Street firms such as Lazard Freres and DLJ pitched him job offers.

What drives Li Lu? "Everybody has the potential to become a great leader, a great scientist, a great professor, a great human being," he says. "The biggest crime of the Chinese political system is that it restricts that potential. When I got an opportunity to try mine out, I chose to do what everyone told me was impossible."

Li also has seemingly impossible goals for his homeland. "My ultimate goal," he says, "is to see China develop the same standards of freedom as America." But how does China get there from here? And what is the role of business as a force for change?

On these issues, Li argues from his own experiences. For example, he asserts that the most important force for change is not top-down pressure from outside the country. It's bottom-up pressure from young people whose lives were transformed by the June 4, 1989 massacre.

"Tiananmen taught us that liberty and the freedom to pursue prosperity are rights we are born with," he says. "This generation may not have the power to change the government, but it has the power to change its own economic situation. These people are the wheeler-dealers, the entrepreneurs. They are building a power base. In another 10 years they will be in leadership roles in every aspect of Chinese society."

The Tiananmen generation is not the only force for change. Not even a dictatorship can stop the advance of new ideas about business, politics, and technology that are reshaping the world outside China. The Road Ahead, Bill Gates's digital manifesto, has sold 400,000 legal copies in China — and countless more bootleg copies. Multiply one book, available through official channels, by a vast collection of underground magazines — not to mention the global reach of the Internet — and China's police state looks puny by comparison.

"When you are born a slave, raised a slave, and live under slave conditions, you begin to think like a slave," Li argues. "Not until you are exposed to the possibility of difference do you begin to realize that you too are different." Thanks to the communications revolution, more and more Chinese are being exposed to those differences.

Li's conclusion? "Dictatorship is in an unwinnable war against technology." To be sure, there's a role for outside political pressure. But forget inside-the-beltway wrangling over China's trade status; Li says denying China Most-Favored-Nation status is unrealistic and counterproductive. ("MFN has become an utterly ineffective showcase for channeling all of the truly serious issues in China: human rights, nuclear proliferation, intellectual-property theft.") Instead, coalitions of companies with business in China should press for progress on three specific issues: freedom of the press, fair treatment of labor, and greater market access and entrepreneurial opportunities. These issues are central to human rights and successful business: "If companies push for a credible legal system — the rule of law — they will create conditions for competition and revitalize the private economy."

That's precisely what Li Lu predicts will unfold. Despite the traumas and tragedies of his youth — and the enormous challenges facing his country — he remains a stubborn optimist. Today real unemployment in China runs as high as 17% in the cities and 33% in the countryside. An estimated 100 million peasants are floating around rural areas looking for jobs. These conditions, Li says, are sowing the seeds of renewal: "People in China are sick of being poor. That's why the country will change."

He expects to be able to return to China one day. And he believes his training as an investment banker, along with his years in America, are just what he needs to be an effective champion of democracy.

"Business success and financial knowledge give you more credibility than any other experience to speak out on public issues," he says. "And no country in the world has as deeply rooted a sense of egalitarian society as America. There's a belief here that if you work your tail off you will be rewarded. That's a fundamental impulse of all human beings. I long to take that integration of democracy and capitalism back to my fellow Chinese."

Stephan (Somogyi sfs@gyroscope.net) is a San Francisco-based writer and consultant. His work has appeared in "The Economist," "I.D. Magazine," CNET's News.com, and "Upside."

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