WASHINGTON - The Internet has helped Chinese dissident Wang Dan span the distance from his exile home in Los Angeles to Beijing, where 20 years ago he shot to fame as a top leader of the Tiananmen democracy protests.

Wang -- still youthful-looking at 40, but fleshier than when the reedy Peking University history major rallied the masses at Tiananmen -- also believes information technology will help civil society change China in the ways for which he fought.

The Internet has changed the meaning of exile, he said in a wide-ranging interview days before the 20th anniversary of the bloody crackdown in the heart of China's capital.

I don't think we're really in exile, because I use the Internet, MSN, Skype, Twitter, Facebook ... so I have a lot of contact with mainlanders, said Wang. He was jailed twice and has not been allowed back to China since being exiled in 1998.

Now chairman of the Chinese Constitutional Reform Association, with a Harvard doctoral degree, Wang concedes that the China of today is far richer, more powerful and influential than the country he left.

But he insists that Communist Party rule by force and deception remains the norm and the basic characteristic of this government never changed.

The government has already lost control of activities of civil society on the Internet -- that's the hope, said Wang, describing the World Wide Web as a key weapon in an ongoing struggle between state and society.

The Internet and social-networking technology means more and more (of the) younger generation can find the truth, even though there's a lot of censorship, he said.

Underscoring Wang's point, the media freedom watchdog group Reporters Without Borders published a report on Tuesday on tests of online censorship that found a full Chinese media and Internet blackout of the events of June 4, 1989.

A Chinese Internet search of popular search engine Baidu for 4 June images brings a warning about Chinese law, while a search for articles produces only official Chinese statements about Tiananmen, the report said.

Wang stresses that China's savvy surfers know their way around Chinese censorship and says he remains optimistic about his cause.

He finds it disappointing that many Western governments, including the Obama administration in the United States, appear to have accepted China as it is in recognition of its economic and political clout.

I hope Western governments can pay more attention to civil society -- the China of the future, said Wang.