Yang Jianli was a PhD student in the US when the Tiananmen democracy movement broke out in 1989. Keen to participate, he went back and witnessed the June 4 crackdown. He said that was 'a point of no return' in his life.
'I saw tanks rolling over students,' he said. 'I felt China had no choice but to change.'
Yang returned to the United States and continued participating in pro-democracy activities there. When his passport expired two years later, the Chinese authorities refused to renew it. Yang returned to the mainland in 2002 on a friend's passport to observe labour unrest in the northeast but was detained on charges of espionage and illegal entry. He was jailed for five years.
Despite his personal experience, Yang remains upbeat about the future of China, he said in an interview after the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony which honoured jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo .
Yang said Chinese were more aware of their rights nowadays and the rights movement was moving rapidly. 'Citizen power has grown really rapidly in China and ordinary people are very different from before. Human rights, universal values have prevailed in people's minds,' said Yang, who organised a delegation of exiled dissidents to be present at the ceremony last month.
Beijing has long adopted heavy-handed tactics towards dissent. Liu was jailed for 11 years on subversion charges for co-drafting Charter 08, a manifesto that calls for the end of one-party rule and sweeping political reforms. Dozens of fellow dissidents and his supporters were subject to various forms of harassment.
Yet Yang believes political changes will take place in the near future. He said Liu's Nobel award, together with the influence of Charter 08, would empower and galvanise the mainland's fledgling rights movement. And although Beijing's immediate reaction to the Nobel Prize was to crack down harder, it would force the authorities to reflect on their harsh attitude towards dissent.
So there will be a point when the Communist Party has no choice but to enter into political negotiations with the people, said Yang, who runs a Washington-based foundation that advocates political transition and supports rights activities on the mainland. 'That will be the first step in transition ... Then we'll need a civilian leader like Liu Xiaobo to come forward,' he said enthusiastically. 'I believe it will happen before Liu Xiaobo's 11 years are up.'
Yang, son of a local government cadre, knows all about negotiating with the government. In 2006, under international pressure, the authorities tried to release him and send him back to the US eight months before his jail term was up. But he refused to leave unless the government re-issued him a passport.
He returned to jail until he served out his full term. And after he was released, he stayed on the mainland for another four months, until the authorities gave him a passport. He insisted that it was his right as a Chinese citizen to have a passport. '[I told them] if you force me to leave China ... I would sue both countries: sue China for making me a refugee and sue the US for abducting me.
'I want to give the government pressure and to tell them you can't take away people's rights like that,' he said. He has refused to apply for US nationality despite having lived there for more than 20 years.
Yang is deft with the media and has an affable manner reminiscent of a politician. While in prison, he gave classes in maths, English and calligraphy as well as leading a basketball team. Guards and fellow inmates called him 'teacher'.
He has the support of many US politicians who are critical of Beijing. Yang runs his office from Washington - a location he says helps him lobby politicians on Chinese issues more easily. While he was in jail, more than 40 members of the US Congress petitioned for his release.
Some say exiled dissidents are too easily manipulated by US politicians, but Yang sees nothing wrong with garnering all the international support he can get. 'If we didn't have international pressure, wouldn't the situation in China be even worse?'
Shy of talking about his own political ambitions, Yang said the leader of a 'free' China would emerge from political movements on the mainland and stressed that Liu would play a prominent role.
'I believe a mainstream opposition force will emerge. Before, there was no [leading] figure and everybody was developing in different directions, but [in the future] many will lean towards this mainstream force,' he said, referring to the influence of Liu and Charter 08.
Yang is not content with staying overseas and wants to return to China 'in about three or four years' time' to participate in civil rights movements - even though it might not be easy for him to go back.
'I can see the road ahead. There are sharp stones, but we can remove them or get around them.'