HIGH atop a modern Beijing office tower, some of China's youthful new entrepreneurs are at work.
As one taps diligently on a computer and another faxes a distant associate, the international consulting firm seems like any other fast-growing joint venture: It has a partner in Taiwan, a subsidiary in Hong Kong, interest in a coastal industrial park, and projects ranging from baby food and office furniture to carbon fibers and computer software.
But there is a difference. Only three years ago, six of the seven Chinese partners were in prison, part of the pro-democracy student wave that rose up in the Tiananmen Square uprising and was brutally suppressed.
Now out of jail and back in the mainstream, they and dozens of other activists are pursuing the path of market reforms which are dramatically reshaping their lives and China.
"Under the old structure, it would be difficult for us to survive," says one economist who was expelled from a Beijing university and denied an officially sanctioned job with housing and other benefits. "But the reason we're in business is not just because we're forced to make a living," he adds. "We're in business because it's a break from the old system and the past."
Moving from the barricades to the business suite in a few short years, a new breed of activist-entrepreneurs is emerging from the tumult of 1989 and the country's market experiments.
In China, starting a business is known as xia hai, or going to the sea. And as the Tiananmen generation starts to rebuild shattered lives, almost all are on a maritime march, many activists say.
No one is sure what a politically aware business class will bring China. The country's communist rulers hope that, chastened by jail, the new entrepreneurs will fall in line with other Chinese scrambling to get rich and forget democratic demands of the past.
Not unlike their much-admired Chinese counterparts in Singapore, supreme leader Deng Xiaoping and other Communist elders in Beijing hope to mix economic prosperity and tight political control to survive the collapse of world communism.
Not all Chinese Communists are convinced the strategy is risk-free. Many fret that the so-called "turmoil elite" will cash in on China's new wealth and pack economic and political clout in a democratic thrust down the road.
The country's intellectual elite has enviously watched thriving middle-class counterparts in South Korea and Taiwan assert new democratic power in once-oppressive societies. Spearheaded by a newly empowered middle class, Thailand's democratic uprising against a corrupt military regime last year has not been lost on some Chinese.
"We should closely watch the new movements of some leading members of the `turmoil elite.' They have gone into business aimed at staging a comeback," warned Song Ping, a retired Communist elder who nevertheless retains influence among some younger party leaders.
Activists themselves are divided. Citing today's singular obsession with making money and Chinese fear of social turmoil, an academic who served almost a year in Beijing's Qingcheng prison, predicts that "98 percent of the activists who have gone to the sea will forget their commitment to the movement.
"Once you are in the sea, your behavior is regulated by business practice and profit orientation," observes the activist who ran a catering business. "In the future, if someone asks such an activist-turned-businessman to contribute to the cause, he would first consider how such a contribution serves his corporate interest."
Others strongly disagree. Citing a comradery that prompts activist-businessmen to help newly released detainees or the families of those still in jail, some dissidents claim their political commitment is strengthened by a new reality and maturity.
"We were very young then and didn't have a very good understanding of what China faces. We understand now," says a business consultant whose three-year prison term ended last year.
"The thing we all have in common is that our belief in democracy in China has not changed," he continued. "Throughout history, men of property have been the motivating force in the progress of civilization."
But even the path of capitalism is proving rocky for the activists. Blocked from restarting life in Beijing, many activists have fled for the relative openness of the south. Even there, their political past continues to haunt them, activists say. They remain under tight surveillance and are still harassed by security officials.
One of the Beijing business consultants opened a restaurant on the coast two years ago but was shut down by security officials at a loss of more than $10,000 to his family. He expects more meddling as his company grows. "As we become bigger and become a growing concern, we will probably face more political interference," the man predicts.
For one entrepreneur in a booming coastal province, government harassment is more insidious. Recently, when trying to register a new company with provincial authorities, he was given a temporary license after extensive entertaining and bribing.
But when he applied for the company's permanent registration, he was ordered to present a bank guarantee of more than $60,000. Upon posting that, he was refused the registration on orders of local security officials.
"This is not in the interests of the Communist Party," he observes. "If one cannot follow the path of prosperity, one is forced to become an outlaw. The only way out is revolution."