GUANGZHOU, CHINA — WHEN Wang Xizhe left prison last year after a 12-year internment for his role in the Democracy Wall movement of the late 1970s, he faced a battle to go into business.
``The government wouldn't assign me a job, and since I was still on parole, I could only borrow money from friends and start a small business,'' recalls the activist, who built a career, ironically, as a Marxist theorist.
But that wasn't so easy. Banned from publishing articles, going overseas, and meeting journalists, Mr. Wang also met official resistance in raising capital, finding business partners, and obtaining a license. Only when he threatened to carry his campaign to Beijing and American officials, did opposition ease.
``At that time, I said, `If you ban me from these things, I will go to Beijing ... and lodge complaints and even go back to jail,' '' he says. ``I wanted to demonstrate to the world that pro-democracy activists are not only good at promoting democracy in China but also in contributing to economic reform and opening.''
Amid a crackdown on Beijing and Shanghai dissidents and China's confrontation with the United States over trade and human rights, this lusty capitalist haven of southern China has become a testing ground for dissidents-turned-businessmen.
In recent years, thousands of liberal intellectuals and activists have flocked to Guangzhou, driven from the provinces by economic woes and political repression and lured by the relative openness.
As the reform vanguard and engine of Chinese economic growth, Guangdong Province has a lot riding on the Clinton administration's impending decision on extending low-tariff trade privileges for China. President Clinton has threatened to end Beijing's special trade status because of China's human rights record.
And as dissident protests have flared recently with rising inflation and economic uncertainty elsewhere in China, Guangzhou is being closely watched. It could provide the answer to crucial questions: Will prosperity buy off political dissent, or will it fuel political change? Many here feel the less-orthodox south is setting the agenda for China's future.
``There is the possibility that the culture of southern China, which is one of relaxation ... could erode the political commitments'' of the past, says Li Minhua, an activist forced out of inland Hubei Province for editing a radical student magazine in the 1980s.
``But the rise of white-collar workers shows the economy is almost under the control of a younger generation.... They will be the future masters of China,'' the academic researcher says.
``The issue in the future will be whether the lifestyle and concepts of the south will prevail over those of the north,'' Wang says. ``Step by step, the south is gaining the upper hand.''
Although many activists have become successful entrepreneurs and key executives with state-run companies, Guangzhou is hardly a political mecca for those who challenge the official line.
Businessmen interviewed say they are still closely watched by security officials, face problems in obtaining jobs and funds and striking business deals, have their travel restricted, and are even barred from publishing their political views.
Nervously, officials in Beijing watch once-prominent political figures build up their economic clout and worry that it will be used for future political activities. Activists say liberal supporters of former Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang, who was ousted for opposing the crackdown on democracy demonstrations in 1989, now head large conglomerates and even state-run firms in southern China.
But activists, who generally favor US renewal of China's most-favored-nation trading status (MFN) but who are divided over the political reform campaign of Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten just across the Chinese border, still wonder if business helps or mutes their cause.
Red Guard turned millionaire
Li Zhengtian is a former Red Guard who served more than a decade in prison along with Wang Xizhe for mounting protest posters that helped galvanize the Democracy Wall movement.
Today, the prominent but eccentric sculptor has become a millionaire, lecturing and advising new enterprises on ``corporate culture.''
Seated in his spacious apartment, Mr. Li says intellectuals should now be calling for the rule of law in China, not democracy. He admits such views, as well as his flamboyant career, do not endear him to some activists whom he criticizes as Utopian. ``I do not worship democracy. We have talked enough about democracy. What is more important is law,'' Li says.
Li Minhua says he also has come around to the belief that ``reform of the political system and democracy depend on economic development rather than changes in ideology.... The market economy is the Trojan Horse for the old structure. Along with the development and improvement of the market economy, the old system will collapse,'' he says.
Some younger activists who spearheaded the pro-democracy protests of 1989 say they are disappointed with the apolitical climate of Guangdong but contend that the ways of the past will not work in a changing China.
Wen Chuan, a student leader in the Hubei provincial capital of Wuhan, fled arrest during the June 4 crackdown five years ago. Despite some harassment, he has established a consulting and communications firm that is establishing a string of department stores in southern China.
``After June 4, my peers have come to see that China's reform will not be completed within a storm,'' he says.
Still, issues like China's MFN status with the US makes him pause. ``There is a contradiction between my conscience and business interests. On one hand, I hope MFN will be renewed because it is good for economic development and my own business. But in my conscience, I think if conditions are attached it will help China's political development.
``Economic development will gradually help political development in China,'' he says. ``But we don't know how long is the path.''