On April 18, 1989, three days after the death of Hu Yaobang, Li Jinjin found himself sitting on the stairs of the Great Hall of People at Tiananmen Square among younger students trying to petition their government. He was excited but not quite ready to act himself.
At the time, Li Jinjin was a graduate student of law at Peking University. Unlike most of his classmates there, he had already acquired quite a bit of experiences outside of campus.
Born in 1955, he grew up in the midst of the Cultural Revolution when the education system was disfunctional at the best. When he was only 15, he joined the People's Liberation Army (with his age altered by a recruiting officer). Six years later, he was discharged and became a policeman at his hometown Wuhan city. That was the time when the national college entrance exam was reinstated and he became one of the hundreds of thousands youngsters fighting for a precious spot in higher education. In 1978, he became an undergraduate student of law near his hometown at the age of 23.
He then became a graduate student in Peking University in 1982 and graduated with a masters degree in 1985. After a couple of years of teaching, he returned to Peking University in 1987 to pursue a Ph.D. in law. During his second stinct there, he became active and campaigned to become the chairman of the school's Graduate Student Association in 1988. But he soon got into trouble by publicly voicing dissents and organizing controversial seminars. In early 1989, he was replaced in a reelection meeting that he himself was not aware of.
Having been cautioned to stay out of trouble, Li Jinjin had decided to focus on his academics in that spring of 1989. But when he observed the faltering sit-in at Great Hall of People, he nonetheless stepped up and took a leadership role. He led the latter stage of the day-long sit-in and achieved success: publicly and peacefully submitting students' Seven Point Petition to three People's Representatives. He left the scene immediately afterwards. But the crowd did not disperse and marched to the site of the government instead. It later led to quasi-violent confrontations with police at Xinhuamen.
That could have become the single odd apperance for him in the movement as he immediately disappeared. In early May, he even left Beijing to get back to his family in Wuhan due to their concerns of his involvement. It was not until May 18, when the hunger strike had greatly escalated the confrontation in the streets and a crackdown was immenient, that he got himself involved again. But this time, he took a different route.
On May 18, 1989, Li Jinjin was back on the streets of Beijing, delivering improptu speeches. That night, he happened upon a couple of workers who were trying to organize workers. He volunteered his service and immediately became the de-facto legal counsel of the budding Workers Autonomous Federation. Along with Han Dongfang and Zhou Yongjun, etc., he helped to launch the organization and drafted many of its documents and public statements.
When several members of the federation were detained on May 31 as a precursor of the coming crackdown, Li Jinjin and Han Dongfang led a group of workers and students in another day-long sit-in at Beijing police headquarters. They eventually won the release of their detained members.
Quite amazingly, Li Jinjin then left Tiananmen Square on June 2 and returned to Peking University for his Ph.D. qualification exam. In the morning of June 3, he successfully passed the exam and was spending the rest of day preparing documents to formally register the federation when news of massacre altered all his planning. He tried to return to the Square that night but didn't get past Muxudi, scene of the bloodiest battle that night.
After the massacre, Li Jinjin left Beijing and returned to his home in Wuhan, where he was arrested on June 10, 1989. He was released without a formal indictment on April 24, 1991. He travelled to US in 1993 and earned his US law degrees. He is now practicing law in the state of New York and active in the oversea Chinese democracy movement.
In June, 2011, Li Jinjin published his memoir, documenting his experience in 1989 and the subsequent prison life in China.
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