That was then. Last week, Lu was beaten unconscious in the Pearl River Delta town of Taishi, where— accompanied by a journalist from the Guardian, a British newspaper—he had gone to help residents impeach their own village chief. "Three hundred meters from the village headquarters, we were stopped by men on motorcycles and the car was suddenly surrounded by many people," Lu told TIME last week, speaking in a safe house in Wuhan. "They recognized me and said 'That's the one!' I guess they'd been shown my picture. They opened the door and dragged me out by my hair. I saw someone in a police uniform. They started beating me with their fists and feet. I lost consciousness almost immediately. That's all I remember for many hours." Lu woke in a car being driven to his home 12 hours away.
Lu says he has now been branded a "black hand" by provincial party officials—the epithet used for labor leaders of the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square. His fall from favor underscores the frictions that accompany China's uneven efforts to modernize. While the country has progressed economically, its authoritarian government has not made the same progress in building open and accessible political and legal institutions. Concerned about a rise in mass protests, Beijing continues to promise change. An annual meeting of the party's Central Committee last week concluded with calls for "social harmony" and a commitment to "ruling the country based on laws."
It's a fine sentiment. But even those who take the Party at face value know how difficult it can be to get local governments to follow Beijing's lead. China does have enlightened laws on the books, but often they are ignored. Activists like Lu seek to ensure the laws are obeyed. "We're seeing a real grassroots movement organized around local abuses, and that's never happened in China's 25 years of reform," says Robin Munro of the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, a workers' rights group. Campaigners are working in the one area where China has true democracy. The vast majority of villages are allowed to elect their local chiefs, although many elections remain improperly run or rigged. Activists hope to tilt the balance toward fairness.
If not for floods along the Yangtze River in 1998, Lu might still be tilling his family's paddies. The floods left 200 fellow villagers homeless, and the government promised $2,000 per family in compensation. Lu says because of local corruption, not all the money reached the families. In 2001, Lu bought a copy of China Reform-Rural magazine, which educates peasants on their legal rights. He visited the magazine's office in Beijing and talked with its editors. Later, the magazine invited Lu to a conference on peasant rights with China's leading legal scholars. "I realized then that I could use the Village Committee Organizing Law to impeach my village chief," Lu recalls. Eleven months later he did just that, and even won a seat on his "township people's congress" as an independent write-in candidate.
In March, Lu moved to a factory in the Delta, packing Christmas trees for export to America. A reporter invited him to a restaurant in Guangzhou to meet with legal reformers. They discussed Taishi, where villagers were trying to impeach their chief amid corruption allegations. Lu decided to help. On July 31, he addressed the villagers from atop a heap of bricks, which gave the movement its informal name: Rubble Pile Democracy.
After that, things got ugly. Officials started the impeachment process, then stopped it. In early August, residents surrounded their village committee building to prevent the removal of account books they said would prove corruption. On Sept. 12, police drove the demonstrators away. Roughly 30 people were arrested and 10 remain in custody. Several dozen "hooligans" that Taishi residents believe are paid by local officials now terrorize the village threatening to attack anyone who, like Lu, tries to enter or leave. "Now they're there every day, intimidating people into removing their names from the impeachment petition," Lu says. The village chief, Chen Jinsheng, declined to be interviewed by TIME.
Meanwhile, Beijing has ordered newspapers to cease coverage of Taishi. "The central government may not approve of the excessive tactics of the local government," writes Fan Yafeng, a legal scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, "but it basically wants the situation controlled." Lu says he'll take his work elsewhere, despite the risk. "Other places can benefit from my experience," he says, "and I've bought life insurance."