ON the outside, it's just another house on this tree-lined suburban street. But inside, the China Information Center (CIC) is the focus of communication between what's left of the student demonstrators in China and their allies in America and Europe. ``It's very hard for us, but we are trying,'' says Gong Xiao Xia, a student volunteer who splits her time between the center and Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., where she is pursuing a doctorate in sociology. ``We are students and we are foreigners.''
So far, they seem to be quickly catching onto Western communications technology. The center is a whirl of activity: Fax machines beep, telephones ring, and photocopiers flash. Chinese voices shout; more telephones ring. A collect call comes from China; people come and go. TV crews for news-wire services set up and take down their equipment.
CIC is the flagship center for information about what is going on in China. With affiliated groups in College Station, Texas, Chicago, and Hong Kong, the center is the most extensive of all student-run networks. Its reports are so up-to-date that it has scooped several news-wire services and regularly gets requests for information from TV networks, newspapers, and radio stations around the world.
The center is also a place where Chinese students in the area can phone home for free. It's the student movement in exile - this time fighting with information instead of individuals.
But the mission has changed since last spring. At that time, the No. 1 priority was to let the Chinese know what was really happening in Tiananmen Square. According to CIC coordinator Stephen Lui, the eyewitness reports that the center was getting from Beijing were more consistent with the reports coming in from Western reporters than were the news stories published by the Chinese government in China.
``The [Chinese] students felt obligated to let the people in China know the other side of the story,'' says Mr. Lui, an American of Chinese descent and a paid CIC staff member. ``It became a war of information,'' he says - the center against the Chinese government's misinformation.
``People had articles clipped out, xeroxed from magazines, and we would fax them to China,'' says Lui. The students at universities and offices with fax machines would distribute the news quickly and clandestinely. Pictures were the best way to spread the truth of the massacre, he says, because many Chinese are illiterate.
But within weeks the blitz slowed. ``The government started clamping down on phones and started taking away fax machines.'' The center can no longer fax information directly to China, says Lui; it's too dangerous.
Now CIC is working on other elements of the exiled movement: It keeps international news media informed on events as they happen in China; organizes conferences; produces radio programs to be broadcast from Taiwan to China; obtains emergency funds and visas for students who will not be returning to China as planned; raises funds for telephone calls and mailings; keeps Chinese students in touch with each other; and provides a peaceful fortress for Chinese students - so far from home - who have been through so much. It also serves as home base for two top student leaders who escaped, Wuer Kai Xi and Shen Tong (see interview Page 14), now studying at nearby colleges.
``When we want to call other students - maybe in Chicago, for example - we can get their numbers through China Information Center,'' says Ji Yuan Na, a Chinese who works in Boston.
In addition to helping Chinese students and the news media, the center is called on by scholars and human rights groups.
``They're a great source of information,'' says Kathleen Hartford, president of the China Scholars Coordinating Committee, a group of China experts from Boston area universities. ``If anybody needs to know how to get in touch with anyone in China, they [CIC volunteers] know how to do it.''
When Amnesty International can't get information that it wants on the status of prisoners, they call the center. ``There have been numerous unfair trials and stiff sentences meted out, and executions, and death sentences,'' says Trudy Golden, of Brookline, Mass., a China specialist for the human-rights group.
``What makes all of these things so important is they're not being reported in the Chinese press,'' says Ms. Golden. ``It's a very dangerous situation because we don't know what's going on there. But the China Information Center is getting information like this.''
Says Professor Hartford, ``Unfortunately, there's even more of a need for something like this now. It's not the sort of stuff that is going to be picked up by the media, and journalists in China are not able to get the information.''
Funding for the nonprofit China Information Center has come from private and corporate donors, in both money and materials such as fax machines, computers, and telephones. It was set up by the Walker Center for Ecumenical Exchange, an organization devoted to global understanding from Christian perspectives. The three-acre property in Auburndale, Mass. is home to retired missionaries and visiting scholars, and serves as an asylum for political refugees.
The problem of raising enough money to continue is now becoming critical. Donations have been generous, says Lui, but they've slowed down because the situation is no longer in the news. He estimates monthly telephone bills at about $4,000, which includes fax machine charges.
The center has earned a small amount on the sale of specially designed T-shirts. Dick Buckley, a Swampscott, Mass., artist and member of the North Shore Artists League, designed the logo for the shirt and posters due to come out soon. ``I've never had such a labor of love,'' he says.
In addition, the center is starting the Democracy for China Fund (see story at left), a separate foundation to pay for the CIC activities of gathering and dispersing information and supporting human-rights activities.
Says busy volunteer Ms. Gong between phone calls, ``We hope [CIC] can run forever until we can move it back to China - the sooner the better.''
The center is planning a worldwide fast on Oct. 1 to commemorate those killed in the Beijing massacre. In China, Oct. 1 will be celebrated as the 40th anniversary of the communist victory in China.
For more information, write: China Information Center, 169 Grove Street, Auburndale, MA, 02166. Telephone: (617) 332-0990.