- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 20, 2006

DAQING, China — Li Jian managed a factory, shined shoes, sold toys. Now he is a civil rights campaigner. Since last fall, Mr. Li, 41, has been advising farmers in Dongzhou, on the southeast coast, in their fight to keep farmland requisitioned for a power project.

When the villagers barricaded themselves inside the village and police shot at them on Dec. 6, Mr. Li mobilized.

“This was one of the greatest examples of police opening fire on ordinary people since June 4, but most people kept quiet about their opinions,” Mr. Li said. (June 4, 1989, is when the People’s Liberation Army crushed monthlong pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, with casualties the World Almanac roughly estimates at 5,000 killed and 10,000 wounded.)

In December, Mr. Li left his home in the northern port of Dalian and traveled 1,000 miles to find the village still in fear more than two weeks later. Many villagers were under arrest, he said. By his count, three had been killed, eight injured and 30 were missing.

After Mr. Li posted his report on the Internet, police visited his home and threatened to evict him.

Mr. Li’s rise to social activism reflects the journey of a generation that came of age as China emerged from Maoist isolation to embrace capitalism and globalization, resulting in tumultuous social change.

Raised in the northern oil city of Daqing, Mr. Li started out working for the government petroleum company. Then, when Beijing turned tropical Hainan Island into a laboratory for free-market experiments, he headed there. He shined shoes and hawked newspapers, but made little money. Opportunities, he said, were monopolized by the politically connected.

Back in Beijing a few months later, he joined the 1989 democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and ended up fleeing tanks, tear gas and gunfire.

He headed to Hong Kong, wading ashore from a smugglers’ boat, was caught and sent back, and spent a month in a Chinese detention center. “I saw people starving, people beaten, people being held for not having proper ID, people fighting over food,” Mr. Li recalled.

When China opted for accelerated market reforms in the early 1990s, he imagined it would lead to greater democracy, so he went into business. “I thought doing business would help change society.” But his toy store was shut down for an urban development project.

Ever the activist, Mr. Li organized disgruntled store owners, including helping organize a protest in the provincial capital two hours’ drive away, but to no avail. When the Internet came along, he joined democracy debates on chat sites, and began a correspondence with an online political essayist who went by the name “Stainless Steel Mouse.”

Nowadays Mr. Li spends most days surfing the Internet and fielding cell-phone calls in the small apartment he shares with his wife, a supermarket clerk. His Chinese-language Web site is a clearinghouse for information on human rights abuses.

His activities and the occasional visits from police sometimes cause friction between him and his wife. They live chiefly off her earnings, though he said last year he received “some money” from overseas democracy campaigners.

“All rights have to be struggled for. They’re not heaven-bestowed,” Mr. Li said. “China has a long road ahead.”

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