Documenting Mass Protest Incidents: The Extraordinary Story of Two Ordinary Chinese

Yaxue Cao, October 31, 2020

Li Tingyu (Jane) and Lu Yuyu.

1. The Arrest

The ancient city of Dali (大理), a small town in China’s southwest, boasts a history of more than 600 years. For visitors from China proper, the most eye-catching features of the Yunnan plateau may be the sapphire-blue sky and the grey tiles and elaborately carved beams of the white-walled houses. Because the four seasons here all resemble spring, the streets and storefronts are decorated with flowers and plants, the walls are covered with vines, and you can see the green mountains surrounded by clouds and mist from the street. Geographically and aesthetically, it is paradise. Indeed, in the 1990s and the first decade of the current century, many poets, writers, artists, and musicians from all over China came to settle here, as well as people who, for one reason or another, wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle and disturbances.

June 15, 2016 was a Wednesday. Lu Yuyu (卢昱宇) and Li Tingyu (李婷玉, aka Jane) were having a rice noodle lunch, a characteristic Yunnan meal, in a shop. Lu Yuyu ordered a rectangular tile pot on Taobao to grow catnip for their cat and to attract other cats to their home to play. While they were eating, the owner of the Taobao station sent Li Tingyu several messages (they don’t leave their addresses when they shop online), urging her to pick up the goods. The frequent reminders were a bit unusual, but they didn’t think much of it.

 “After lunch we rode our motorbike to the Taobao station a few kilometers away. Once there Jane went in, which was about 10 meters away from the road by a walkway, while I waited for her off the road. A few men came up and surrounded me. I had envisioned this day and this moment many, many times before and how I would respond. But everything happened so fast that I had no time to think or be scared. I was handcuffed behind the back and shoved into a black sedan, my head immediately covered with a black sag. I was thinking that they might not know Jane was in the Taobao shack, but I was too naive. Momentarily Jane, held by several female officers, walked out of the shack, shouting my name before being put into another sedan. My heart was broken.” (Lu Yuyu, “Incorrect Memories”)

They were a man and woman in love. The “Not News” blog they ran between 2013 and 2016 specialized in reporting mass protest events in China.

The police ordered him to lead the way to where they lived. He thought to resist, but knew it was no use. Besides, the cat was still at home. When he arrived at their place, which was about a kilometer away, there were a number of plainclothes officers waiting at the entrance to their residence. When he got out of the car and brought the police to search the residence, he saw that the car Li Tingyu was in had stopped; she was still in the car, and he caught a glimpse of her wearing a black hood over her head. That was the last time he saw her.

2. Before ‘Not News’

Lu Yuyu was born in 1977 in a village outside Zunyi, Guizhou province. His father, a discharged PLA officer, ran a seedling farm in Zunyi in the early 1980s during the early years of reform and opening-up, while his mother worked as a self-employed individual, a pioneer in her time, one of the first families in town to become wealthy by the standard of that time and own a television set. The father was once elected one of the country’s top 100 private small business owners, while the mother was awarded one of the country’s March 8th Women Red Flag Bearers.

The youngest of their three children, Lu Yuyu, had been sent away for school since he was nine years old, living with a relative or a teacher, and coming home only once on weekends. He changed many schools, and in his own words, suffered a lot of bullying, and went to the county’s key middle school. As a teenager, he liked rock music and playing the guitar, a hobby that few in a small town in Guizhou would have freely shared with others at the time. He even joined a boys’ gang and frequently got into fights. Every time he saw his father, the latter would lecture him about “studying hard” and would not allow him to have other hobbies. He was bored sick.

In 1989, his cousin took part in the pro-democracy movement and described to him the protests and sit-ins staged by the students that year. He also witnessed a demonstration by students at a local Chinese medicine school who blocked off a road in protest. At that time he began using a short-wave radio to listen to the Chinese-language programs on Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. 

In 1995, he enrolled in the Guizhou University of Finance and Economics, studying political economy. He didn’t like it at all. His real aspiration lay in forming a band with his friends. For this dream, he was prepared to transfer to an art school specifically to study music. In sophomore year, he and friends got into a street fight, and he injured someone. He was sentenced to six years in prison from 1996 to 2002.

Six years is a long time. But he said the prison administration was different then, and with the help of his family, he could read, play guitar, and watch football on TV. But during that time, his family had gone through change and his mother died in 2000. He was closest to his mother, and his father did not inform him of the news until a few days after the event he visited the jail.

After his release, he moved out of his father’s home and worked in a small advertising shop making signs and banners for clients. It was the time when the internet was emerging in China, and like many young people living in remote and confined living spaces, he found freedom online. He mainly spent his time looking for music to listen to. At first, his interest was in mainstream music from China (such as Zhang Chu [张楚], Dou Wei [窦唯], He Yong [何勇]) and abroad (Guns N’ Roses, Kurt Cobain). Later his taste shifted to Goth and Darkwave. Some bands he took a liking to were Forseti, Tenhi, Golgatha, Darkwood, Medusa’s Spell, All My Faith Lost, Ordo Rosarius Equilibrio, and Death in June.

“I became obsessed with it,” he said. When not working, he created a blog and collected his favorite music and bands, frequenting online music forums. Back then, not much on the Chinese internet was off-limits (that, or the Communist Party simply had yet to develop a strict censorship system). Google was still accessible.

Lu Yuyu didn’t want to stay in Zunyi. He felt out of place in the environment and didn’t think like his childhood friends. He felt that if he didn’t leave, he would end up “rotting away here.” He found work in Yunnan and Zhejiang, at construction sites, in factories, and internet cafes. Then he was invited by the proprietor of the “China Underground Music Website” to go to Yinchuan, Ningxia in northwest, where he was the chief moderator, responsible for introducing bands, uploading music files, and managing the forum. The site closed down before it was able to turn a profit.

He said of the time that while he never felt anything out of place in his life, “there was always an intangible depressive feeling, that I couldn’t quite put my finger around.”

In 2010, he returned to Zunyi. He started dating a girl; they planned to marry and start a life together. Rural folk were limited by the segregated household registration system and had few opportunities to enter the regular workforce, he explained to me. In the process of urbanization, “most of the rural population could only work odd jobs, doing a little business as street vendors, or even mixing with the triads.” The marriage plan didn’t work out and the couple split.

3. Weiquan Landscape From Early 2000s to 2013

China’s legal rights movement took off in the early 2000s, with landmark events such as the Sun Zhigang (孙志刚) case (2003), the Southern Metropolis News’ being investigated and disciplined for exposing the SARS epidemic (2004), the Cai Zhuohua Bible printing case (2004), lawyer Gao Zhisheng exposing and protesting the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners (2005), independent candidates running for grassroots People’s Congress deputies  (2003-2006), the case of Taishi villagers who organized petitions and protests to dismiss corrupt village officials (2005), the discussion of constitutional government by independent scholars and lawyers (2003-2008), the upsurge of people taking part in civil society following the Sichuan earthquake (2008), the Beijing lawyers’ advocacy of direct elections for the Lawyers Association (2008), and Charter 08 (2008), among others.

But these were mainly events led by academics, opinion leaders, bloggers, and lawyers, powered by the market media, which was still relatively relaxed at the time.

In May 2007, China’s first Twitter-like social networking site, “Fanfou” (饭否), appeared and immediately attracted a large number of users. By the first half of 2009, the number of people using Fanfou broke the 1 million mark, including a large number of ordinary people who were concerned about social events and the political transition since the beginning of the 2000s. 2009 was the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre. A large number of photos from the 1989 pro-democracy movement were circulated on the site; in July 2009 when the the Urumqi riots broke, Fanfou was where the information circulated and propagated the fastest and the most. That August, the Chinese authorities shut down the site.

In August 2009, Sina Weibo was born, and within about a year, several other social media such as Netease Weibo and Tencent Weibo emerged too. By April 2011, the number of registered users on Sina Weibo had surpassed 100 million.

For the average Chinese, whether it was Fanfou or Sina, the emergence of Weibo turned into a passionate revolution for free speech, as well as a silent social revolution. The average person, no matter where he or she was, could get information from all directions through the internet, could “meet” anyone online, finding gatherings of people with the same interests and aspirations to organize and make friends. Through the internet, happenings in a mountain village or a small town that no one would have heard of became events with nationwide impact, such as the May 2009 stabbing by a young woman named Deng Yujiao (邓玉娇) of a local official who tried to rape her in a small town in Badong, Hubei Province (湖北巴东); or the December 2010 murder of a village chief named Qian Yunhui (钱云会) in Yueqing, Zhejiang Province (浙江乐清), who was crushed by a construction vehicle after years of leading villagers to resist forced land acquisition.

Between 2009 and 2011, there were two iconic figures who led the rise of activism in China: the Beijing-based artist Ai Weiwei (艾未未) and Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚), a blind, barefoot lawyer from Shandong Province.

Just a few examples Following the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan, Ai Weiwei mobilized dozens of volunteers to investigate and count the number of student deaths caused by the tofu-dregs construction (豆腐渣工程) of school buildings. They clashed regularly with local officials and the police, and Ai was himself beaten by plainclothes policemen on more than one occasion. These events, as well as his documentary film “Lao Ma Ti Hua,” garnered tens of thousands of followers on Weibo. On May 12, 2010, Ai Weiwei released on the internet a large audio file, Nian (《念》), a compilation of audio clips of thousands of people reading the names of the 5,196 students who died. This is what I heard when I walked into the Ai Weiwei exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., a few years ago.

When Ai Weiwei’s studio in Shanghai was given notice of its scheduled demolition in November 2010, he held a “river crab banquet” (homophone of “Harmony,” the catch phase of the then CCP leader Hu Jintao) at his studio, which was attended by nearly a thousand netizens from all over China.

On November 1, 2011, Chinese authorities fined Ai Weiwei’s studio 15,220,910 yuan (approximately US$2.34 million) for tax evasion. Ai Weiwei turned this into a larger online event, launching a campaign to “borrow” money from Internet users and designing elaborate IOUs that everyone wanted to have. In just two weeks, nearly 30,000 netizens “lended” money to Ai Weiwei. Some even folded the yuan bills into paper planes and dropped them into the courtyard of Ai’s studio in Caochangdi, Beijing. The Global Times editorial mocked this, saying, “Ai Weiwei’s ‘borrowing money to pay back taxes’ is too dramatic.” It was indeed dramatic, and at the same time a most creative means of social mobilization. Arguably, all of China’s civil rights activists of the past decade have been directly or indirectly influenced by him.

Chen Guangcheng was another incredible chapter of the emerging social activism. Immediately after he was released from prison on September 9, 2010, after serving a four-year sentence for leading villagers against violence related to the implementation of the one-child policy, he and his wife were placed under house arrest 24/7 by dozens of local government personnel and forbidden to leave their home. Surveillance cameras and cell phone shields were installed in front of his home and on the streets outside; at night, bright lights shined in and around his yard. Netizens around the country began spontaneously visiting Chen Guangcheng in the village of Dongshigu (东师古), Shandong Province, where they were intercepted, beaten, abused, robbed, and forcibly sent back to whence they came. Netizens posted their experiences on Weibo, prompting a snowball effect by which more netizens journeyed to Dongshigu. The visits to Chen Guangcheng became a social media campaign of solidarity that lasted a year and a half, until Chen’s successful escape in the spring of 2012. I remember that when I first registered my Weibo account and started following human rights activism in China in the fall of 2011, almost all the public intellectuals on Weibo, as well as a large number of netizens, were using avatars with sunglasses on them to signal support for Chen. Without the emergence of Weibo, it is unlikely that rights awareness and social movements would have emerged and built up so quickly.

That was why, between 2012 and 2013, Communist Party propaganda officials and the Party media continued to sound fire alarms that social media was a lost battlefield that the Party urgently needed to seize control over. This was despite increasing censorship and the introduction of a real-name system on Weibo in 2011.

4. The Start

Lu Yuyu was one among those more than 100 million Sina Weibo users. He started using Weibo in 2011, attracted by the waves of enthusiasm surrounding Ai Weiwei and Chen Guangcheng. But neither did he lend money to Ai Weiwei, nor did he want to go to Dongshigu. Seeing so many people going to Dongshigu only to be beaten up, he sent out a Weibo post saying, “Instead of going to Linyi [the city where Dongshigu is located] to get beaten up, you all should go to Beijing.”

It was this one sentence that got him a visit from the Zunyi police. During questioning at the police station, the officers asked him why he told everyone to go to Beijing. He replied frankly: “I think if they want to save Chen Guangcheng, going to Dongshigu isn’t likely to achieve much, but going to Beijing to exert pressure could be more effective.”

The police took notes of the meeting and let him go.

Soon after the incident, Lu Yuyu went to Shanghai. His sister owned a small clothing store there, and he got a job installing pipes at a construction site. He started to get more into things on Weibo, chatting online with rights activists across China (many of whom were “graduates” of Dongshigu). One Saturday in March 2012, more than a dozen activists in Guangzhou were arrested by police after they held up signs in the city’s busiest commercial district to demand that Hu Jintao take the lead in disclosing his assets and that Chinese people be allowed the right of suffrage. Many netizens voiced their support of them. Lu Yuyu wanted to give it a try, too. Although he was a 35-year-old man, he was one of few words, whose fear of holding up a sign in public was deeper than the fear of being arrested and sent to jail. He tried to find a partner to go with him, but found no one. He stood in front of the Shanghai Municipal Government for a long time, but finally, on the bustling Nanjing Road, he made up his mind to hold up the sign, took a photo, and left in a hurry. He later uploaded it to the Internet to express solidarity with activists in Guangzhou.

His sign read: “Officials must disclose assets. Give us ballots.”

Two days later, the police went looking for him at the construction site. He was working and was covered in dirt. They took him to the police station and released him after a day of interrogation. He was forbidden from staying in Shanghai. He went to Sanya, Hainan (海南三亚)  for some time, but it didn’t suit him, so he returned to Shanghai. The police apprehended him on the first day of his return and detained him for 10 days. They also harassed his sister. He had no choice but to leave Shanghai again.

That was October 2012. Wu Gan (吴淦), a well-known and well-liked activist who had taken part in many events and spearheaded forms of effective activism online and offline, called Lu Yuyu to Fujian. There, a friend of Wu Gan’s found Lu a job at a plastics factory.

In Fuzhou, he didn’t use his own ID card and led a relatively stable existence. Working during the day, he used his free time in the evenings and weekends to a certain task: He started to run searches for the mass protests that were often showing up on various Weibo platforms at that time, and posted them to his own account. It became a specialty account and he was an experienced web surfer.

At the time, he recalls, Weibo wasn’t that severe at deleting information about the mass incidents. He had just one phone. “At the beginning I’d come up with eight or nine incidents a day, but after a week or two, the number increased to around 20 a day.” The following year, he bought an iPad and worked more consistently. He would make copies of his searches, save the photos, and post them to his Sina Weibo feed with the source accounts attached, sometimes one, sometimes several. The more searches he did, the more results he got. It became overwhelming. After a few months, he was physically and mentally fatigued. He tried unsuccessfully to find someone to partner with. His account, named @darkmamu, was also constantly being deleted, sometimes within a few days, sometimes after a month, sometimes surviving longer. When it was deleted, he would re-register his account, called “Reincarnation” (转世). At its peak, he had about 10,000 followers.

By April or May of 2013, he felt he could no longer do this while simultaneously holding a job at the factory. The pressure to survive was real and something he had to face every day. He wanted to give up. He felt that, unless he could do it full-time, there was no point doing it ad hoc.  Unexpectedly, however, when he expressed his intention to quit on Weibo, many people responded, including several very active influencers in the activist/dissident circles. Yan Jinfeng (晏今峰), Mo Zhixu (莫之许), and Wu Qiang (吴强), a professor at Tsinghua University who watches and researches social movements, expressed a strong willingness to help him keep this going. People began a crowdfunding movement for him, gathering more than 20,000 yuan in donations with the first round.

5. Li Tingyu and the ‘Not News’ Blog

At the time, Li Tingyu was one of Lu Yuyu’s many young Weibo followers. She was from Guangdong, born in 1991, a third-year student at the School of Foreign Languages at Sun Yat-sen University in Zhuhai, majoring in English. She was one of the many young people in those years who cared about social justice and thirsted for freedom. At the beginning of 2013, she went to Guangzhou to participate in the protests against the bowdlerization of Southern Weekly’s New Year’s column. Because of this, she became a target of the political police. She had been questioned by Domestic Security (also known by its Mandarin abbreviation, Guobao), and she often got warnings from her school’s Political and Ideological Work teachers.

She and Lu Yuyu exchanged private messages. As they entered into 2013, they talked more. In the spring she began to work with him, and they started to date. His job was to search and publish his findings on Weibo; hers was to build the archive.

But her responsibilities soon went beyond archiving. She brought Lu Yuyu’s work to the next level.

First, she created a blog, naming it “Not News” (非新闻, AKA News Worth Knowing) and posting text and images there daily. In June 2013, she created the Twitter account for “Not News” (@wickedonnaa) and began tweeting out the daily blog posts. Their work became more structured and professional.

In August 2013, Lu Yuyu moved from Fuzhou to Zhuhai, and the two moved in together. Lu found more and more material, and Li’s workload grew. “From late 2013 to 2014, you could still search on Tencent Weibo and QQ Space,” Lu said. “She worked every day. She couldn’t finish, so she’d have a backlog of five or six days. It was too much, especially in the month before Spring Festival, when so many migrant workers were demanding their wage in arrears. On any given day, you might find dozens of incidents and hundreds of photos and videos. A large protest could have over 1,000 photos. She couldn’t do it all. I remember that I found someone online to help out, but after working for one week Domestic Security came knocking at his door and took his computer.”

Of course, Domestic Security found Lu and Li, too. “If I’ve broken your laws,” Lu Yuyu told the police, “you can arrest me.” They weren’t arrested, but the harassment continued. Their landlord was pressured to evict them; someone threatened them from the window; someone cut off their water.

In 2014, soon after the Spring Festival, they moved to Dali. Li never formally withdrew from school, she simply left with Lu in her last semester.

In Dali, they embarked on a life of isolation, minimizing their contact with the outside world. Dali is a tourist town. There were a lot of transplants living there, and prices were cheap. They lived in guest houses, which cost about 1,000 yuan a month (about US$160) and allowed them to move frequently. Not only did Lu Yuyu leave without a cell phone, he did not even use his ID card. Li Yuting kept a phone card. They used VPNs to get online and post.

They worked long hours every day. If they did not keep pace, the work would just accumulate. They had less content on weekends and long holidays. For fun, they went on bike rides, visiting Erhai (洱海) and Xizhou (喜洲); sometimes they would go for walks in the old city, go listen to a band, or just sit in a street bar for a drink.

Occasionally a foreign reporter would contact Lu Yuyu about a particular incident. To an extent, this raised his awareness of the need to verify information. “The first step is to check multiple sources: different information about the same event can confirm the facts,” he said. “Add in photos, video, and geographic information, and you have proof. Some things happened in remote areas with little information, sometimes from just one source. In that case, you make a judgment based on the photos and video, then contact the person who posted them. As for details like how it started and the number of protesters, we would also reach out to the people involved. Facts like the number of people arrested were often not posted on Weibo by the source and we have to contact them and find out.” Luckily, when people posted firsthand information on Weibo, they wanted their message to be spread. So they were more than willing to talk to Lu.

In their last post before their arrest, published on June 13, 2016, they noted 94 incidents, including workers’ protests for back pay, peasant protests against pollution and land grabs, forcibly relocated households protesting against the government and developers that had breached their trust, property holders defending their right to ownership and claims to management services, investors who had been defrauded, and veterans calling for their due. Among them were over 10,000 investors in the Fanya Metals Exchange, who gathered at the State Bureau of Letters and Calls in Beijing to demand their money back; and 2,100 retired military officers who converged on Beijing’s municipal Military Commission petition office to demand their rank-based entitlements and confirmation of cadre status.

In those 13 days in June, Lu and Li recorded 840 protests, anywhere from 34 to 110 on a given day.

Every day, they tweeted out this news, including photos and video. Any active Twitter user who saw an account like this — one that tweets at set intervals, never joins in any discussions, never shares any personal information, where you can never tell who is behind it and what their motivation is — would understandably be a bit suspicious and distrustful. It is hard to believe that the person behind @wickedonnaa was a millennial named Li Tingyu, a young Chinese woman who could not be more ordinary but was doing backbreaking work. The account had 17K followers, their tweets receiving retweets from a few to a dozen or so. But this did not seem to affect their dedication. They documented over 70,000 incidents over the few years they were active.

“At the end of each day’s work,” Lu Yuyu said, “we had a deep sense of satisfaction. When you love the work you do, you have unlimited drive and no fear.”

They documented the major protests of those years. In March 2014 10,000 residents of Maoming marched to protest public construction of a PX (aromatic hydrocarbon) plant. In April of that year, almost 100,000 workers at more than ten Yue Yuen factories went on strike because the shoe manufacturer had defrauded them in its purchase of social security funds, leaving retired workers with measly pensions. At the same time, a fight broke out between chengguan (城管, Urban Administrative and Law Enforcement) and a street peddler in a small town in Zhejiang’s Cangnan County. A middle-aged man who took photos of the scuffle was then beaten with hammers by five chengguan officers until he spit up blood. In the end, it wasn’t clear whether he was dead or alive. An angry crowd surrounded the five officers and began to beat them back. Eventually, thousands of protesters attacked the police cars, ambulances, and chengguan vehicles.

Lu Yuyu recalls, “In 2013, there was guaranteed to be a protest on that scale every week, with tens of thousands of people. But I remember very clearly, after that chengguan incident in Cangnan, there was a huge drop-off in that type of trigger for large-scale protests. I suspect that the government had set up some sort of early prevention system. If a crowd gathered in the street, within minutes it would be dispersed. There would be no time for it to brew like there had been before. It’s not that the chengguan don’t beat anyone up, but that there’s no space or time for people to react.”

He said, “Environmental protests also dropped off in 2014. It was nothing like 2012 or 2013, when there were so many. After 2014, the government must have made special efforts to deal with this situation.”

Those two years in Dali were relatively quiet and happy, Lu says. “We worked a lot every day. I don’t talk that much. She would ask me about when I was young, and sometimes she would tell me about her life, like how in high school she was a broadcaster at the school radio station. Most of the time she did her thing, and I did mine.”

He was responsible for buying groceries and cooking. She wasn’t picky — she would eat anything. They had a cat named Little Stinker. He played guitar in what spare time he had. Sometimes she yearned to have a bit of a social life, but they had to lay low. They met with friends once or twice, but otherwise they abandoned all social contact. Even if they saw on social media that a friend was coming to Dali, they wouldn’t get in touch. Sometimes she would buy some small things. If she bought too much, she’d blame Lu for not stopping her. “It’s just small indulgences,” He would tell her, “our life together is hard enough already.” They hardly ever argued.

6. Danger Nears

Lu Yuyu had a premonition of the danger to come.

By 2014 and before, his posts on Sina Weibo would garner a large number of reposts, sometimes more than 10,000, at least hundreds. When it got to a certain number, his posts would all be deleted. But entering 2015, netizens started having trouble reposting his posts. Though his account had been deleted a number of times, he was able to “reincarnate” – creating new account. But starting 2015, the “reincarnations” of his @darkmamu account would be deleted as soon as they were found. One day, he got a notification from Gmail’s two-factor authentication service, and he knew someone somewhere else was attempting to log into his account. He would get strange questions in Weibo private messages, asking to pay him to delete certain posts, for instance.

One day as he and Li Tingyu were riding their motorbike in the old city, someone rushed out from the side of the road. Lu swerved to one side, and they both fell to the ground. The guy who had startled them did not help them up, and he did not apologize. A woman and three men stood beside him, like they were all part of a gang, watching from the road. “They didn’t look like tourists, and they didn’t dress like tourists. It didn’t feel right at all. At the moment I raise my temper, but Tingyu had a few words with them. There were all these signs. It could have been normal, or that I was overthinking it. It was hard to pin down.”

He asked a friend to make a backup of the Not News website.

He had never talked to Li Tingyu about the possibility they could be arrested. But “she knew, this thing we were doing, we would eventually get locked up for it.” A reporter once asked him what plans he had made. He said he would keep doing the work until they got them, until they couldn’t do it anymore.

“I remember after I’d been caught, I saw my file was labeled ‘Case 1517: Picking Quarrels and Provoking Troubles.’ Maybe that number was the date the authorities formed a special investigation team. It corresponds with the time when I had sensed a change. I could tell this wasn’t a local case, and later this was confirmed. It was a case handled by the Ministry of Public Security. Before they had figured out where we were, they already had a team working on our case. Once they’d found us, they handed it over to the Dali police and Domestic Security. During the interrogations, the police officers always had a list of questions printed on a piece of paper. And the information they had couldn’t have been picked up by a municipal PSB, because it had all the posts deleted from Weibo, some of it years before. But they had it all.”

7. After Release

On November 7, 2016, Lu Yuyu and Li Tingyu were awarded the 2016 RSF Press Freedom Prize “for his extraordinary work of documenting and contextualizing the scarce information about social unrest and labour protests, which was the very essence of citizen-journalism.” The other two recipients were Syrian reporter Hadi Abdullah and the Chinese news website 64Tianwang.

Lu Yuyu told Deutsche Welle recently, “They once elevated my charge to ‘inciting subversion of state power’ that would carry a seven-year or longer sentence. But I did not give in. Later the case was sent back to the prosecutor who charged me with ‘Picking Quarrels and Provoking Troubles.’ The prosecutor visited me every other week telling me that he was giving the last opportunity, and a heavy sentence would be levied if I refused to admit guilt.” Lu Yuyu refused to admit guilt, and was sentenced to four years in prison.

The last year in jail, he suffered severe depression, and received no treatment

On June 15, 2020, the day after his 43th birthday, he was released. Police took him directly back to Zunyi, Guizhou — he didn’t have a choice; the police decided where to take him. While in prison he had learned that Jane had been sentenced to two years in prison with a three-year reprieve.

The first thing he did was to look for her. To his horror, no one he asked – their friends, her lawyer – had heard from her or about her since her release. He sent a tweet, “Jane, please contact me if you see this message,” like beaming a signal on the ocean. In the end, he managed to find Jane’s mother on WeChat. She told him that Jane had married and he should leave her alone. He couldn’t believe it.

A few days later, she called him. She said she had moved on, but she cried throughout the call. She told him that she had been miserable. She also told him that the happiest three years of her life were the three years spent with him. “She called from someone else’s phone, and I could tell she was very fearful.” After that call, she has never called back again. He resolved not to disturb her anymore. “I only want her to have peace, and to have a better life.”

Out and freed, he found that conditions had further worsened than four years ago. “The grid management in China is total and leaves no corner untouched,” he said. “In cyberspace, it would not allow you to speak; in real life, it makes sure you have no place to stand on. It forces you to bow down; some are coerced to be their informants.” Indeed, after nearly a decade of intensified crackdown, one wave after another, rights activism has all but disintegrated. Arbitrary detention has become more arbitrary, and detention without trial or trials in secret have become more and more routine.

To Lu Yuyu’s surprise, friends and netizens from the past haven’t forgotten him. In the first two months since his release, he has received 80 letters from across China and a few from abroad, some signed, most anonymous. He started a #晒太阳 (bask in the sun) hashtag on Twitter to post them. During the four years in prison he only received two mails, a letter from Wang Lihong (王荔蕻), a veteran dissident since 1989, and an anonymous postcard with only four characters: “Get more sun.” [I know for a fact that more letters and postcards every year were sent to political prisoners, but few were received.]

“The internet has memory, so do we. What you did is meaningful and valuable. There are many who are thinking about you. Thank you.”

“This letter is more to myself than to you, to my pain and conscience. I don’t have the courage to do what you two have done, nor do I have the capital and courage to flee China. I can only think about you, and live cowardly as I have.”

Recently, a netizen shared with the world his unwarrantedly joy and sense of freedom while in the air in a plane.

In his hometown, Lu Yuyu told VOA, he has no friends, no one who understands him. His father, a CCP member, says to him over and over again: “Don’t do anything bad.” Relatives coaxed him: “Get a normal job, don’t be like you were before.” Everyone thinks he has done something disgraceful.

Of course, those who pay the most attention to him are the police. He was required to make appearances at the local police station’s “Office for Comprehensive Management of Public Security,” to give them his phone number. A specific officer is assigned to track his whereabouts and activities. He has been warned not to scale the Great Firewall or give interviews, but he has done both. They told him that he can’t go back to Dali, nor to Beijing, Shanghai, or Xinjiang. He must report to them if he leaves town. In the fall, he traveled to Sichuan, Fujian, and Guangdong, meeting friends and sightseeing. When he was in Guangzhou, police forced him to go back. No doubt under pressure, his landlord recently asked him to leave before his rental contract ends.

Will he continue “Not News” or start some similar endeavor? We want to know, more so the police. It’s not possible anymore, he said. If I pick it up again, I will be in jail in a month or sooner.

In the summer, he began to write about his four years in prison. The first part, titled “The Incorrect Memories” (《不正确的记忆》) is about the year in detention center (看守所) awaiting trial, and he’s working on the second part that’s about the near three years in prison (监狱). He is a surprisingly good writer. His style, as his temperament, is tart and precise. The brutality, even on paper, makes one flinch.

“I’m not a hero,” he said. “Nor am I one of those who’ve chosen to stay in China in order to continue the struggle. I worked on Not News because I liked it; I didn’t leave China because as someone at the bottom rung of society, I didn’t get the opportunity. I didn’t capitulate because of the price I would pay for it. I want to live with dignity.”

Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao

3 responses to “Documenting Mass Protest Incidents: The Extraordinary Story of Two Ordinary Chinese”

  1. […] For several years, the Blog News Worth Knowing or Wickedonna was a major source of information on mass protests in China before the people who ran it, Lu Yuyu and Li Tingyu, were arrested in 2016. Lu Yuyu was released from prison this year, and Cao Yaxue wrote an interesting article on the story of him, Li Tingyu, and their project of documenting social protests in China: Documenting Mass Protest Incidents: The Extraordinary Story of Two Ordinary Chinese. […]

  2. […] I didn’t capitulate because of the price I would pay for it. I want to live with dignity.” [Source] […]

  3. […] I didn’t capitulate because of the price I would pay for it. I want to live with dignity.” [Source] […]

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