FREEDOM has given one of the last June 4 dissidents to flee China new vigour in his crusade for democracy. THE hand-wringing story of painter Gao Ertai is a reminder that, almost four years after the June 4, 1989 crackdown, the flame of the democracy movement still flickers. The irony of Gao, 58, one of the last big-name dissidents to have fled China, is that the other-worldly professor of aesthetics never wanted to be involved in politics. ''When I was in art college, I was criticised for being a 'white expert', somebody who puts professional pursuits above the theories of Marx or Mao,'' Gao said. The tribulations that have befallen him since the 1950s, however, have turned the 58-year-old artist-academic into a formidable crusader for democracy. Gao, who fled Sichuan province last June and is on his way to the West, has vowed to devote his remaining years to fighting what he calls ''the terrible, the unspeakable cruelties'' in China. In 1957, when he was a budding theoretician of 21, Gao was packed off to a laogai or reform-through-labour camp in the Gobi desert for expressing the view that ''beauty is in the eyes of the beholder''. When he recalled his benighted fate, Gao, who managed to escape with his devoted wife Pu Xiaoyu, still had difficulty believing he could be ''struggled against'' for some innocuous remarks. ''We have four schools of aesthetics: beauty is based on objective factors; that it is purely subjectivist; that it is a mixture of the two; and that it is predicated on a mixture of social conditions and other objective factors,'' he said. Gao's ''bourgeois'' views, together with his calls for a tolerant attitude towards academic debate, confirmed him as a ''rightist'' in the eyes of the Maoists. He was bundled off to a wing of the Jiabiangou State Farm near Jiuquan, Gansu Province, a laogai facility that was home to 3,000 inmates. ''More than 90 per cent of us perished,'' said Gao, who spent three years at Jiabiangou and another facility called Jiahetan Farm. ''For 15 hours a day, we dug a gully in a futile bid to render the wasteland fertile. We were given two bowls of thin gruel every day in addition to an insubstantial bun.'' Gao was saved because of his artistic talent. His imprisonment coincided with the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Daqing Oilfield. Then party secretary of Gansu, Zhang Zhongliang summoned Gao to do propaganda artwork. By then, the legs of the ''rightist'' had swollen and he had to be lifted up scaffoldings to do the gargantuan tableaux. Fellow laogai slaves picked up personal effects left by those who had died. Gao's experience was behind the famous short story, The Seventh Grey Coat: six of the garment's previous owners had succumbed. ''Jiabiangou Farm soon disappeared from the face of the Earth,'' Gao said. ''Years later, when local peasants wanted to convert the site into a seed farm, they discovered hundreds upon hundreds of bodies.'' In the Gobi desert, Gao began what proved to be a lifelong habit of recording his sufferings in miniature handwriting on small pieces of paper, a palm-sized one of which contains thousands of characters. ''Through sheer hard work I could write characters that are not much larger than an ant'', Gao said. ''I could hide the snippets easily.'' In 1962, the Anti-Rightist Movement came to a temporary stop and Gao found refuge in the Dunhuang Artefacts Research Institute, doing studies on the famous murals. The tranquillity was short-lived. The Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966 and the scholar-painter, branded a ''reactionary academic authority'', was carted away for more hard labour at a May The Seventh School For Cadres in Jiuquan. Again, it was Gao's brushwork that saved his life: he was asked by leaders in many cities and institutions to do portraits of the Great Helmsman Mao Zedong. ''I did so many Mao portraits I could close my eyes and churn out even a wall-sized one within hours,'' Gao said with a bitter grin. ''However, because I got good food for doing such a 'holy task', I spread it over days, saving time for my miniature notes''. Gao's reputation as a rightist was not rehabilitated till 1978 - the year patriarch Deng Xiaoping assumed power - when he found a senior research position in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. In the brief hiatus of relative liberalisation, he published influential articles on human rights, freedom, alienation and humanitarianism. Little wonder that when ideologues Hu Qiaomu and Deng Liqun launched the Campaign Against Spiritual Pollution in 1983, Gao bore the brunt of the attacks. He was forced to transfer to Lanzhou University. On a trip to Lanzhou the same year, however, Deng Liqun gave instructions forbidding Gao to hold classes. A ban was put on the first edition of his masterpiece, On Aesthetics, and even the printing plates were destroyed. The book fetched 30 yuan on the black market, more than 20 times the original price. After 1984, Gao moved to Sichuan Normal University, and for a time received ''protection'' from the relatively liberal leaders of the province, a base of ousted party chief Zhao Ziyang. However, in late 1988, his split with the remnant Maoists became irrevocable when he joined the cream of the nation's ''bourgeois-liberal'' intellectuals in launching the monthly The New Enlightenment. Reaction from the leftist commissars were swift. ''The Enlightenment of 1919 led to the birth of the Communist party,'' Xu Weicheng, a lieutenant for Deng Liqun said. ''Now what do these rightists want to do with their new enlightenment? To bring down the party?'' About three months before shots were fired at Tiananmen Square, a ban was put on the fourth and final issue of the journal. Gao was arrested on September 9, 1989, for ''providing spiritual support to the makers of turmoil''. ''From April to June 1989, I was busy moving house from Sichuan to Nanjing, whose university has a liberal reputation. I did not take part in a single demonstration,'' Gao said. ''They released me after 41/2 months but refused to close the case. My phones were bugged. They recorded my every move. I could not publish or leave the country''. Together with his wife, also an academic-painter, Gao hopes to earn a living in the West selling paintings and writing books that are partly based on experience recorded by his miniature handwriting. ''My paintings and books are a glooming look at different shades of darkness,'' he said. ''I do not know how well they will be received by Hongkong and Western audiences.''