They marched together, fasted together and kept vigil beneath a makeshift Goddess of Democracy in Tiananmen Square before their drive to bring new freedoms to China was crushed beneath the army's tank treads.
Fast forward 14 years. The leaders of the 1989 Beijing Spring movement now live mostly in exile, their sights focused on such mundane matters as earning a living in investment consulting or Internet startups or broadcasting.
Many on China's list of the 21 most wanted students issued shortly after the June 4 crackdown say they stay involved in the cause when they can. One or two have even found ways to pursue their passion nearly full-time.
But for most of them, real-world considerations take equal priority as they reflect on a movement the violent suppression of which left hundreds dead in and around Tiananmen Square.
"They're politically active in peripheral ways," said Mickey Spiegel, a Human Rights Watch senior researcher who keeps in touch with some of the leaders. "It's hard. You're really peripheral once you're out of the country."
The winds of change that ushered in the 1989 Beijing Spring ultimately deposited many of the 21 outlaws on foreign shores.
Number two on the list was Wuer Kaixi (吾爾開希) of Beijing Normal University, who now lives in Taiwan and works in broadcasting, other students and human rights activists said.
Escape to the US
Chai Ling (柴玲), known for her passionate speeches and tearful outbursts, escaped to the US, divorced her husband, Feng Congde, a year later, and now heads a Boston-area Internet company.
Chai's former husband Feng, also on the list of 21, lives in Paris where he is preparing to defend his thesis next month as a doctoral student at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes.
Apart from his studies, the soft-spoken Feng's biggest passion is 64memo.com, his Web site containing an archive of nearly 8,000 documents about the June 4 army crackdown that put an end to the two-month-old democracy movement.
"Everyday I memorialize June 4 with my Web site," said Feng, now 37, in a telephone interview from Paris. "I can't say I have a lot of hope, but there's been a little progress. Hope is always a long way off."
Of all the student leaders, Beijing University's Wang Dan (王丹) was singled out as China's most wanted. Twice imprisoned, Wang was freed in 1998 and exiled to the US where he recently finished his second year in a doctoral program at Harvard University's history department.
Wang said he had helped to organize and participate in a series of forums and lectures on human rights, democracy and similar issues in China. He is also a director of the organization Human Rights in China.
"I'll probably need four or five years to complete my PhD, and then I hope I can return to China," Wang said in a written response to questions.
Wang and others said they were guardedly optimistic about China's new leaders, headed by recently promoted Communist Party chief and president Hu Jintao (胡錦濤).
"They are a little faster to react than the previous generation," said Feng. "Because of SARS, the discussion in the media has been relaxed. But real freedom of the press is still a long way off," he said.
Zhou Fengsuo, the fifth most wanted student who now works as a financial analyst in San Francisco, was less upbeat.
"Any leadership change within the party has no significance," he said. "It's the system that's corrupt in China. The hope of China will not come from inside the party."