BEIJING, JAN. 23 -- The most prominent student leader of the 1989 democracy movement went on trial today for his role in the massive calls for political liberalization.

Wang Dan, 23, a Beijing University student who advocated moderate and peaceful means to achieve political reform, was charged with counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement. Wang, a slight, bespectacled history student, headed the government's 21 "most wanted" list of student leaders, issued days after the Chinese army crushed the demonstrations on June 4, 1989.

A spokeswoman for the Beijing Intermediate People's Court said Wang was represented by a lawyer, but declined to give other details of the trial. According to Wang's friends, his parents tried repeatedly to hire their own lawyer. But the government rejected each potential representative on political grounds, the friends said. The government then appointed its lawyer for Wang.

The eventual sentence given to student leader Wang and older intellectuals is likely to be an indication of how harshly the government plans to treat those it considers leaders of the protests. At least 19 other activists have been tried or sentenced over the past two months in connection with the campaign for democracy.

Earlier this month, nine activists, including four other student leaders, were given relatively light sentences for their participation in the protests -- from suspended sentences to four years.

According to some Chinese sources, as many as several dozen activists may be tried and sentenced before the Chinese New Year, which falls this year on Feb. 15. Some of the older activists are expected to receive harsher sentences to support the Chinese government's claim that the widely nonviolent protests were a "counter-revolutionary rebellion." But a token number of activists, possibly including Wang, may receive light sentences as a gesture of conciliation to Chinese citizens and as a response to the concerns of Western governments and human rights groups, sources said.