Former Chinese student protest leader Wu’er Kaixi is shown on World Press Freedom Day during a celebration of the 30th anniversary of Reporters Without Borders in Paris in May. (Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)

One of the most prominent and charismatic leaders of the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square is running for a legislative seat in Taiwan’s general election Saturday.

Victory is far from certain for Wu’er Kaixi, a longtime exile who was once named China’s No. 2 most-wanted. The vote, set to begin at 7 p.m. Friday Eastern Time, is expected to see the opposition Democratic Progressive Party prevail over the ruling Kuomintang, which favors closer ties with China. Wu’er is running for a small “third force” party focused mainly on electoral reform.

But long-shot odds don’t faze him. He is happy to have a platform, an opportunity to speak his piece.

“At 21, I fought for democracy, and more than 26 years later I get to shape it,” he said.

A life in Taiwanese politics is not something the young Wu’er would have imagined. An ethnic Uighur, he was born in Beijing in 1968 and attended university there, joining the student-led protests in the spring of 1989.

Wu’er Kaixi, then a student at Beijing Normal University, leads a chant during a protest at the offices of the People’s Daily in Beijing on May 9, 1989. (Sadayuki Mikami/AP)

Confident and quotable, he soon became a front-line leader. A Washington Post report dated May 7, 1989, opened with Wu’er being lifted on to students’ shoulders as they charged a police line. “The police pulled Wuer down and ripped the school flag he was holding to the ground, but his action allowed hundreds of followers to break through,” it reads.

Later that month, in what would become one of the movement’s defining moments, a hunger-striking Wu’er met with the government's representative, Li Peng, wearing hospital pajamas and proceeded to berate the Mao-suited cadre in front of the media.

Li would later back the bloody crackdown that sent Wu’er and many others underground. Wu’er escaped to Hong Kong as part of the smuggling effort known as Operation Yellowbird. From there, he made it to the United States, where he met his Taiwanese wife.

Wu’er and his family have lived in Taiwan since 1996. He’s tried several times to return to China, telling reporters he is willing to turn himself in to visit his aging parents. Every time, Beijing turned him back.

His foray into Taiwanese politics comes at an interesting juncture.

President Ma Ying-jeou came to power in 2008, promising closer China ties. That policy culminated last year in the first meeting between China and Taiwan’s top leaders since the end of the Chinese Civil War.

Although Taiwan is a thriving democracy, Beijing still claims sovereignty over it. Ma’s rapprochement was premised on a framework, negotiated in 1992, that allows both sides to say there is “one China” without specifying what that means.

The woman predicted to become Taiwan’s next president, Tsai Ing-wen, does not put much stock in the “1992 consensus,” promising instead to preserve the “status quo” across the Taiwan Strait.

Wu’er disagrees with both stances, seeing the 1992 agreement as a Cold War relic and embrace of the status quo as a cop-out. He wants Taiwan to formally recognize the People’s Republic of China and end what he sees as the “one China” myth. “Nobody really believes there is one country anymore,” he said. “There are two countries.”

Whether or not the idea proves popular with voters, who are mostly focused on domestic issues, the act of campaigning means something, said Wang Dan, a fellow Tiananmen survivor who lives in Taiwan.

“It's important to participate in democracy, and it doesn’t matter if he gets elected or not,” he said of Wu’er.

Both men see Taiwan’s democracy as an inspiration — and, they hope, a model.

“People probably won’t believe it if we say China will become a democracy one day, but it’s not impossible. It happened here in Taiwan,” Wang said.

Wu’er said that if he is elected as a representative of the Constitutional Reform Fraternity Coalition, he will make domestic issues a priority for the next few years.

But he said he “must hope” for a democratic future across the strait and knows he wants to be part of it.

“I want to learn how to shape a new type of democracy,” he said. “One that will work for Taiwan and hopefully, one day, for China.”

Xu Yangjingjing in Beijing contributed to this report.

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