On an autumnal evening last year, Wang Peigong stood on the stage in the Great Hall of the People for the first movie premiere screened inside the imposing edifice, a monument to China's Communist rule. For the 57-year-old screenwriter, it was another sign of the changes rocking his country.

Ten years ago, Wang was tossed in jail because of events that unfolded next door -- on the expanse of Tiananmen Square. On May 20, 1989, the day martial law was declared in Beijing as tens of thousands of demonstrators massed on the square, Wang publicly renounced his membership in the Communist Party. Two days after the June 4 crackdown that ended the demonstration, he slipped $200 to Wuer Kaixi, a fugitive student leader who fled China in a speedboat for Hong Kong.

Chinese police arrested Wang two weeks later. He spent 21 months in Beijing's Qingcheng Prison without being charged with a crime.

Now, as he was introduced in the Great Hall as the screenwriter of the film "The Emperor and the Assassin," a buzz zigzagged through the audience. For the only prominent playwright incarcerated during the Tiananmen Square crackdown, it was a clear indication that in today's China, there is a justice of sorts.

Wang's reincarnation from political prisoner to successful screenwriter -- and proud owner of a new car, a new home and a mobile phone -- is just one of millions of stories that describe the contradictions of China on the eve of the 21st century.

Ten years ago this week, the student-led Tiananmen Square protests involved millions of people in the largest outpouring for freedom in China since the Communist revolution in 1949. The movement was crushed on the orders of party leader Deng Xiaoping. Hundreds were killed during a military assault. Thousands more lost their jobs and were arrested and jailed during a subsequent nationwide crackdown.

Today, many Chinese are embracing evolution, not revolution, as a way down the tortuous path to modernity. The approach has produced results. Chinese citizens are arguably freer today than ever. Many can choose their jobs and where to live, buy stocks and bonds, openly read books their parents would have been jailed for possessing, travel overseas, sue the government -- even the police -- and sometimes win. Under the influence of economic reforms, China has moved from a totalitarian society to an authoritarian one. In 1980, having a foreign boyfriend or girlfriend was a crime. Today it's commonplace.

In the countryside, China's one-child policy has all but broken down. Many farm families have two, three, even four children. Forced abortions to enforce the policy are becoming rare. And in some cases, government officials encourage farmers to have more children because the officials can keep government-levied fines paid by the offending families to supplement their paltry salaries.

Still, the past decade has brought a mixture of advances and retreats. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese remain in jail or under surveillance for expressing their political or religious beliefs. An estimated 17 million people have been laid off recently in the cities and 140 million people have no real work in the villages; many receive no support from the state. Tibetans, Uighur and Mongolian ethnic groups have yet to be granted the autonomy promised them under China's constitution. Independent labor unions do not exist. Corruption graft has filled the pockets of Communist Party members. Pollution from unregulated factories chokes China's cities and sullies its rivers, lakes and streams.

Nonetheless, political reformers are moving away from the sweeping demands for overnight improvements made popular by China's exiled dissident movement. Since 1992, when many liberals who had been purged from the government after Tiananmen were allowed to return to their posts, they have labored painstakingly to increase freedom in small but significant ways. This is a profound departure from a century in which China's attempts to modernize were marked by volcanic mass movements. As the embers from these explosions have faded, China has plodded along generally unchanged.

Reformers today are concentrating on nuts-and-bolts issues such as ending police torture and encouraging democratization in the countryside, where 550,000 of China's 900,000 villages now elect mayors. While some Western observers call these mayoral elections a sham, in some villages, such as Shao Village in Hebei province last Nov. 26, villagers have died for the right to vote.

Despite portrayals of China in the United States and elsewhere as a rapidly emerging military and economic rival in Asia, many Chinese seem to feel that a gradual approach at home is setting the country on a stable course toward a more open society.

This report, gathered from interviews across China, in Taiwan and the United States, looks at the lives of four individuals who were transformed by the events that unfolded around Tiananmen Square a decade ago -- and whose stories since then reflect the country that China is becoming.

The forces that have shaped China have played out in the intersection of these individual lives. It was the screenwriter's cash gift that helped propel the charismatic, gravelly voiced student leader to freedom. It was the prominent businessman, jailed after the crackdown, who gave the screenwriter his first job after prison. And it was the student leader's flair and eloquence that helped persuade the 17-year-old son of the Beijing professor to join the marching in the streets, where he was shot dead by People's Liberation Army forces as the crackdown began.

The Screenwriter

Wang Peigong emerged from prison in March 1991 to find a changed country. When he was jailed, political statements were mandatory in art, writing, poetry and film. The most popular literature at the time unmasked the cruelty of China's Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. Wang's most famous play, "We," took an acerbic look at the political fanaticism of the Cultural Revolution. A second play, probing China's obsession with Mao Zedong, was banned.

Wang found himself less interested in participating in the many public functions he had cherished. He tried his hand at business, working for the company of his old friend Wang Shi. But mostly he focused on writing, his relationship with his wife, an accountant at a Beijing university, and his son, now a 24-year-old art student.

In that sense, Wang's life reflects one profound change since Tiananmen -- the emergence of the private individual. Wang once belonged to the Communist Party and party-affiliated writing groups. His livelihood came from membership in a "work unit," which paid him whether he wrote or not. Bit by bit, Wang has broken his ties with these organizations. Now, to eat, he must write. But his freedom to choose projects, to be alone, to think independently has increased vastly.

"I realized that I was a lousy politician," Wang said. "The best thing for me to do was to get off the stage and watch the rest of them fight." Wang's alienation from politics reflects a nationwide move away from ideology since Tiananmen. Before the crackdown, Beijing was a boiling laboratory of cultural experiments. In December 1988, Beijing's first nude art show rocked the country. Later that winter the Central Museum of Fine Arts put on the first exhibition of avant-garde art and one of the participants -- in a performance art frenzy -- shot her own sculpture, a phone booth.

But in the years since Tiananmen, China's culture has veered from politics and performance art and toward cheesy love stories, Hollywood-style soap operas, karaoke and kung fu. As censorship has been relaxed, access to Western movies, books and Internet sites has soared. Culture has also become an industry. There are now 400 television stations where there used to be fewer than five. Ad revenues from China Central TV, the main channel, grew from $24 million in 1990 to $500 million last year.

Wang has avoided politics not because he fears a return to the gulag, but because it doesn't pay. Instead of social criticism, Wang has turned to imperial Chinese history for inspiration. He wrote the screenplay for director Chen Kaige's film, "The Emperor and the Assassin," which premiered in Beijing and is scheduled to be released in the United States later this year.

"Many of my colleagues would rather not write," he said over a cappuccino at a five-star hotel in Beijing. "The main problem with drama these days is that it's too superficial. . . . And people don't want to watch plays about unemployed workers when they are fretting about their own future."

Wang explains the demand for hollow entertainment as a result of the way life in China has been complicated by the uncertainties, dislocation and pressures of economic change. But he is confident that Chinese will again demand that the culture reflect the realities of daily life.

Wang places his broader hopes for the country with the men and women who stayed here after the Tiananmen crackdown. "The people who will change China are the ones who did not pull themselves away from society," he said, "people like Wang Shi, people who stayed."

The Entrepreneur

Wang Shi keeps a photograph of himself wearing an army cap on his bookshelf. "I'm an admirer of Gen. George Patton," he tells a visitor to his corporate headquarters in Shenzhen. "He once said that you can really tell the measure of a man when he is at his lowest. I agree. It's too easy to judge a man when he's doing well."

Wang Shi hit bottom in 1989. During the heady days that May, as more than 1 million people massed in the streets of Beijing and other Chinese cities, Wang, the chief of China Vanke Co., led his employees in a march for freedom.

The march led him to a year in jail. Wang recalled that his daughter, then 7, would go with his wife once a month to the prison. Her mother did not tell her that her father was in jail, simply that they were visiting an uncle. At the prison, the girl befriended a dog. Prison rules did not allow the daughter inside the facility. "So I became the uncle with the dog," Wang said with a wry smile.

Unlike Wang Peigong, who does not regret participating in the Tiananmen protests, Wang Shi says he was wrong to get involved in a political movement against the government.

"I have a responsibility to my shareholders that is more important than politics," he said. "For the CEO of a big company to take his employees onto the streets for a political protest against the government, well, it really doesn't look very good. I am not a completely free individual."

Wang went into business in 1984 in Shenzhen, which was once was a sleepy farm village bordering Hong Kong. But when China's economic reforms began in 1978, Shenzhen became a laboratory for capitalism and today is one of China's 10 largest economic centers. In the beginning, Wang specialized in importing office equipment and computers.

For many years, Wang wanted to study abroad. Indeed, he moved to Shenzhen with the idea of staying in the special economic zone for two years, making some money, then going to the United States.

In 1988, Wang established China Vanke Co. and waded into the risky real estate market. His steady hand and some good luck ensured windfalls for the firm. Last year his $300 million corporation, which builds affordable housing for China's burgeoning middle class, made $24.6 million in profits. Wang's dividends alone would make him a multimillionaire.

After 1989, he said, something changed in China. Wang realized that the reforms would not be stopped. Indeed, economic statistics show that in the decade ending with 1989, China's gross domestic product per capita rose 362 percent. But in the 10 years since it has outstripped that gain -- jumping more than four times, to about $800 a year. Wang has shelved plans to leave.

"I can go abroad to travel now, I can see the world," Wang said, "But I tell my friends not to leave. China is the best place to make money and develop yourself."

One key reason is that society has begun to accept entrepreneurs. In the past, Wang said, people like him were viewed as opportunists, of suspect patriotism and dubious political background. In their desire to create something of their own, Chinese entrepreneurs were seen as violating the main tenets of Communist Chinese society -- which values the collective above all.

Society looks up to people like Wang Shi because they deliver. More than two-thirds of China's economic growth is powered by non-state firms like Wang's.

The growth of private enterprise is already having political reverberations within Chinese society -- something Chinese private businessmen are not eager to speak about.

For the first time, private citizens are using their wealth to fund China's fledgling nongovernmental organizations and back sensitive research projects that the government once controlled.

The boom in private enterprise has also created another area in Chinese life where Communist Party politics does not play a major role. Just as Wang Peigong is a private person, so Wang Shi's Vanke is a private firm.

The key moment in this transition came in 1993, when Beijing and China's provinces reached an agreement on taxes that established for the first time that Beijing's interests were not the same as China's 30 provinces and independent cities -- something Washington and the 50 U.S. states have accepted for years.

Vanke's tax bill skyrocketed, Wang said, but "it was not necessarily a bad thing. Our rights were clarified."

Increasingly, Wang said Vanke's relationship with the government is that of taxpayer, free of official interference.

During his 49 years, Wang has lived much of his life in the limelight. He has been a soldier, a Red Guard, a worker, a political prisoner and a CEO. He's a mountain climber; a dog-eared copy of Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air" sits on his desk.

"If no one comes poking around here from the government, then actually I think that will be the time to worry," he said. "I'm doing unconventional things here. It's natural for them to be curious."

The Exile

In November 1996, Wuer Kaixi boarded a fishing boat off the west coast of Taiwan and took a three-hour, nighttime ride to mainland China. Wuer spent two weeks in China, traveling through southern provinces of Fujian and Guangdong using a pseudonym -- Mr. Zhang. He met with dissidents inside China, saw China's economic boom and returned to his home in Taiwan the same way he came -- clandestinely.

Wuer would have been a major catch for China's security services. When he fled China in summer 1989 -- using money from screenwriter Wang Peigong and other friends -- Wuer Kaixi was a 21-year-old student leader and No. 2 on a government list of most wanted political activists following the Tiananmen crackdown.

Now, after stints pumping gas in California, laboring in freight forwarding, busing tables at a Chinese restaurant in the San Francisco Bay area, partying too intensely in Paris, Wuer Kaixi is a radio talk show host in Taichung, a small city in the center of Taiwan. Along the way he has married and had two children.

Wuer said he took his secret trip for several reasons, but one was his persistent desire to feel relevant to China. Another was residual guilt for escaping the crackdown, while others went to jail.

"Wei Jingsheng did time, Wang Dan did time, now maybe it's my turn," he said, referring to two of China's most famous dissidents.

Wuer's stealthy sojourn encapsulates the sad nature of the vast diaspora of Chinese dissidents abroad -- their guilt in fleeing the motherland while others suffered in jail, their internecine struggles over money and a chance to speak to the Western media and their fears about their irrelevance to life in China today.

Whereas screenwriter Wang Peigong and entrepreneur Wang Shi are vital players building a new China, Wuer and the rest of the several hundred exiled dissidents have watched during the last decade as their influence and their fame on the mainland waned. Tensions within the dissident diaspora have reflected this decline.

Wuer is 31, but he retains the boyish charm he had in 1989. He has learned a lot in Taiwan, he said, living in the midst of the world's only democratic Chinese society. Taiwan carried out the first direct election of a president in a Chinese community in 1996. It boasts a self-confident, freely elected legislature and a raucously free press.

"Taiwan is a success, not only because of the economy, not only because of open elections and a free press," Wuer said. "What I find the most successful about Taiwan is the smiles on people's faces. They are happy. If you go into the street and ask, `Is Taiwan good?' People will tell you it stinks. But they are happy."

Wuer's student leader background, Uighur looks and his northern accented Mandarin make him a standout in Taiwan. University students visiting his radio station titter in his presence, cab drivers still won't let him pay.

He understands that his role in China is minuscule. But he dreams, nonetheless, of returning home one day to be a TV talk show host. Meanwhile, he is toying with the idea of running for a seat in Taiwan's legislature.

Like most of his compatriots back home, Wuer said the last thing China needs is a revolution. While some prominent dissidents say real change will not occur until the government acknowledges the crimes it committed during Tiananmen, Wuer Kaixi said a reversal of the verdict on Tiananmen Square now could stymie political reforms, sparking widespread demonstrations and another ineffective mass movement.

"People are freer than they have ever been in China," he said. "I think if everything goes okay, I'll be able to go home in five years. If something happens, if there are demonstrations and another crackdown, it will take longer."

The Professor

Ding Zilin is a reluctant radical.

During the protests in Beijing 10 years ago, she begged her husband and their 17-year-old son not to take part. "I knew nothing would come of it," she recalled. "I tried to protect my family. I know the Communist Party better than they did. They weren't party members. I joined in 1960."

One day, her husband called her to the gate of People's University, where Ding is a professor, to watch the protesters flow down Hai Dian Road.

"I looked on for 30 minutes. I was very moved. But then I thought my son might be going with them. I ran home. I saw him there. He was doing his homework. My heart was at ease. Later he began to march with them and I became afraid."

Sometime before dawn June 4, her son, Jiang Jielian, was gunned down by army troops swarming into Beijing.

"He can never come back to my side. Not in 10, 11, 12, 20 years," she said, shaking with tears. "As we approach the [anniversary] of his death our hearts are heavier each day."

If Wang Peigong and Wang Shi are a sign of how far China has come since Tiananmen, and Wuer Kaixi an indication of what was left behind, Ding Zilin, in her sometimes madcap bravery, is an illustration of one struggle over where China is heading.

The professor, 62, is now leading a campaign calling on China's state prosecutors to investigate then-Premier Li Peng for his role in the Tiananmen crackdown. She and other victims' relatives have recently handed over evidence to China's judicial authorities accusing Chinese leaders of ordering murder, inhumane treatment and other crimes.

Ding rejects the pragmatism of Wang Peigong, Wang Shi and even Wuer Kaixi. In her view, China has not taken great strides in human rights since Tiananmen. "Compared to Mao's time people can complain privately but that's about it," she said.

But Ding's views are shared by only a segment of Chinese society. Over the years, political crackdowns have been modified by a government that realizes jailing thousands of people does not solve its fundamental problems.

In novel ways, Chinese people are also beginning to stand up for themselves as never before. In 1986, Chinese filed 700 suits against the government. By 1997, that number had jumped to 90,557. And the largest chunk of those suits, 15.6 percent, was against the police.

Furthermore, desire for democracy bubbles under the surface. Last Dec. 31, the first of China's 45,000 townships elected its leaders in a daring and illegal vote. Interviews in that township, Buyun in Sichuan province, clearly showed that most Chinese rejected the Communist Party's line that electoral democracy equals chaos.

Despite these strides -- or perhaps because of them -- the government remains adamant in its refusal to confront the events of June 4, 1989.

The Ministry of State Security has blocked Ding's access to about $800 donated by Chinese students in Germany for the families of Tiananmen victims. Security officials occasionally have stopped her from leaving her Beijing apartment to buy offerings for her son's grave.

" `Rest in peace.' We have no way to say these words to the dead of Tiananmen," Ding said. "The government's view about Tiananmen is inhumane. They violated these people's rights to life and they are still insulting them to this day. They must reverse their verdict on the protests and acknowledge they were a patriotic movement to help China. It was not counterrevolutionary. They know this in their hearts."

CAPTION: The CEO jailed for leading a protest.

CAPTION: The screenwriter is proud of his new car.

CAPTION: The ex-student leader now hosts a talk show.

CAPTION: The mother lost a 17-year-old son.

CAPTION: Wang Shi, a CEO in Shenzhen, led his employees in a march for freedom in 1989. He now regrets his role in the protests that earned him a year in jail.

CAPTION: Wang Peigong, a screenwriter who reflects a new Chinese emphasis on the individual, was jailed for 21 months after he publicly renounced his Communist Party membership.

CAPTION: Wuer Kaixi, like many other activists who went into exile, fears that he has become irrelevant to the rapidly changing lives of the Chinese who stayed behind.

CAPTION: Ding Zilin represents a small group that says the nation has made only small strides toward democracy and that wants the government to admit wrongdoing.