Chinese activists Lu Yuyu and Li Tingyu: Love in the time of censorship

Lu Yuyu and Li Tingyu were picking up a catnip plant pot for their cat, Little Stinker, when their romance was abruptly ended. Waiting at the pick-up point were the police who had been tracking them for the entire three years of their relationship.

“Jane (Li) went in to pick up the delivery, and I waited for her outside. Suddenly several men came around,” Lu recounted to Amnesty International from his home in Guizhou province, southwestern China.

“I had imagined countless times before what the day would be like when it arrived and how I would react. But it all happened too fast, too late for fear, and I was taken into a black car with my hands twisted behind my back and a black hood placed over my head.

“I thought maybe they didn't know Jane was inside the Taobao (online delivery store) station – that was a naive thought. She was escorted out by several policewomen, shouting my name at the top of her lungs while being taken into another sedan.”

That was the last time Lu Yuyu and Li Tingyu saw each other.

It’s an ill-fated love story that began in 2012, when Chinese activist Lu started logging details of mass protests in China and posting them online. The data he released – including workers’ strikes, environmental protests and police clashes – remains the primary, if not only, source of information about such events.

His campaign attracted the attention of fellow activist Li, a university student from Guangzhou. Nowadays, Lu only refers to her as “Jane”.

“Jane wrote to me to say that she was very interested in the information I had searched out and found it useful for social movement research. We chatted endlessly,” Lu said.

“One day Jane suddenly said, ‘I've been reading your blog since the end of last year, and I also read your QQ (a Chinese messenger app) profile.’ Before we knew it, we started to fall in love.”

Rebel finds his cause

Lu Yuyu describes himself as a rebellious and angry child, who was later expelled from university for fighting. He went aimlessly from job to job – construction worker, internet cafe webmaster, plumber, warehouse manager – until he found his true calling online.

“When I was working, I felt miserable, but then I went on Weibo (a Chinese social messaging platform) in 2011 and saw that there were people like Ai Weiwei and Chen Guangcheng, and I realized what kind of life I wanted to pursue.”

His activism began with small-scale protests that saw him targeted by the police, prompting him to change his strategy.

“The method of protesting with a sign can only train one's courage, but the actual effect is very limited,” Lu said.

Instead, he decided to start collating information about other small protests taking place across the country and sharing his findings on Weibo. His posts and accounts were repeatedly deleted, but he persisted – and soon he also began receiving messages of encouragement from people following his work. One of them was Li Tingyu.

In June 2013, when Lu posted a message about his financial difficulties due to resigning from his factory job to focus on his information search, Li responded and declared she wanted to visit him and help raise awareness about the importance of his work.

Partners in “crime”

Li joined Lu in recording details of mass protests across China, and she gave the project a name: Non-News. It was news that you wouldn’t see in the media.

Lu and Li became partners in crime – literally, in the eyes of the authorities. They were constantly harassed by national security police.  

According to the standard of four years for eight tweets, I should be sentenced to 35,000 years.
Lu Yuyu

In 2014, the unwanted attention prompted the couple to move to Dali, a picturesque tourist mecca in southwestern China. They relied mostly on donations from other netizens to support their living expenses.

Lu says he lived as an “invisible man” in Dali, but still he never felt safe. By 2015, it had reached the point where his Weibo account would be instantly deleted whenever he tried to open a new one.

“I was prepared and forewarned about prison, I just always avoided talking to Jane about it. I’d say it only served to increase our fear and didn’t change our lives.”

But in June 2016, the fear became a reality on that fateful trip to pick up a catnip pot. The pair were arrested and charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”.

Jailed for speaking out

Lu Yuyu had always insisted on fact-checking information before publishing it. Because of this rigour, it was difficult to find evidence to convict him. In the end, only eight of the 70,000 messages he had posted were confirmed as evidence of “false information”.

Lu was sentenced to four years in jail, while Li got a two-year sentence, suspended for three years.

“At the end, the trial judge asked me what I had to say. I said that I had recorded almost 70,000 incidents over the years, and according to the standard of four years for eight tweets, I should be sentenced to 35,000 years. The gallery exploded,” Lu said. But despite his defiance, Lu suffered in prison.

“The conditions are very poor, and they rarely serve any meat so you're often very hungry,” he said. He was diagnosed with depression during his imprisonment. Since his release in June 2020, he has also seen his freedom of movement restricted by the authorities.

“I now take medication and exercise regularly every day, and spend some time learning English and reading books – that's about all I can do,” he said.

Since leaving prison, his thoughts have also naturally turned to “Jane”. His first tweet after his release was a plea for information about her whereabouts. But when he managed to reach her mother several weeks later, he was told she had “moved on”. Li herself subsequently confirmed this in a tearful phone conversation. Lu Yuyu has since deleted all tweets related to “Jane”, although he says he is happy to know that she is well.

Lu’s incarceration is over, and so is his relationship with Li. But in the documentation of 70,000 separate incidents that would otherwise have gone unreported, the legacy of his work remains.