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After six years in jail and another year of constant police harassment, Chinese political dissident Liu Gang is glad to be in the United States but, like many exiled democracy activists, he talks of returning to his homeland soon.

"In the U.S. I now know what it means to be free," Liu said.Liu escaped China and arrived in the Boston area a month ago. While he is hoping to continue his studies at an American university, he doesn't think it will be long before he can return to a changed China where he isn't viewed as an enemy of the state.

Liu said students in China today are even more interested in democracy than those who took part in the Tiananmen Square movement of 1989.

"Then, no one dared to criticize the Communist Party, and if anyone did, no one even dared to listen. Now, not only do people dare to listen and speak out, everyone is doing it."

The 35-year-old physicist was third on the government's most-wanted list when he was arrested in June 1989. After his jail sentence, he was released and ordered to remain in his hometown of Liaoyuan in northeastern China.

"Being at home was like being in jail," he said. "The police came over to interrogate me twice a day. They used my house as their office."

Liu said his phone calls were monitored or cut off in mid-conversation. His mail never arrived. Friends and family were harassed and sometimes beaten. Potential employers were intimidated out of hiring him.

On April 9, after stuffing pillows into his bed so police would think he was asleep, he slipped out his apartment window at midnight. He managed to board a 2 a.m. train and eventually made it to Beijing.

He spent evenings in video theaters to avoid police. One day, he barely evaded capture leaving the home of physicist Xu Liangying, an eminent science historian.

Life on the run was difficult, and on April 27 he left the country with the help of human rights groups. He was granted a one-year stay under a provision of U.S. immigration law.

He has met with John Shattuck, assistant secretary of State for human rights, but has not sought out meetings with other U.S. politicians.

Liu is uncomfortable commenting on the issue of renewing most-favored-nation trading status for China.

"The U.S. should use its own laws to deal with this," he said.

Liu does support increased trade between the two countries as a way of enhancing contact.

"When people in China see U.S.-made cars or televisions or computers, everyone knows they're high quality. But when people see trashy Soviet products, they know that communism can produce only junk."

As a graduate student at Beijing University in 1989, Liu served as a liaison between the students at Tiananmen Square and the professors back at the campuses. Several weeks before troops opened fire, he started urging students to clear the square. He said the situation had gotten difficult to control, especially with the ever-growing influx of out-of-town youths. He wanted students to return to campus to regroup and form a strategy.

While his official crime was "conspiracy to subvert the government," Liu said he harbored no such desires. But, after six years in prison, "Now I feel I should overthrow the government."

Liu is confident he can continue working for political reform from the United States, noting that he can now at least call and send mail to his contacts in China.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)