HONG KONG — When thousands of laid-off workers marched down Victory Road in Liaoyang, China, this month, protesting corrupt factory leaders, the foreign media was tipped off by something called the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy. When an evangelical Bible smuggler faced a possible death penalty in China early this year the world knew through the center.
Of the known human-rights cases in China, about two-thirds first come to light from the Hong Kong-based outfit, China watchers say.
Yet the "center" is just one person a Chinese Don Quixote named Frank Lu Siqing.
Armed with a cellphone, a pager, and a rare network of some 2,000 mainland sources, Mr. Lu works 14- hour days, tilting at the windmills of Chinese state security and disseminating news that does not appear in China's state-controlled media.
What's remarkable given his subject, supporters say, is that Lu is practically the only person doing such work.
So effective has China been at intimidating and shutting off any investigation or criticism of its internal behavior that at the annual UN human-rights body in Geneva last week no country sponsored a critique of China. (The US has regularly done so, but was voted off the 53-member commission last year.)
Conduits of information out of China on prisoners of conscience or dissenters have dried up, leaving mainly second- or third-hand networks of academics and exiles.
"Practically no one is left," says one American source. "They are either retired or in prison."
"In China, the scale of abuses is very large. What we know is the tip of the iceberg," says Robin Munro, a veteran British-based human-rights expert. "In most parts of the world, human-rights awareness comes from the NGO community, people plugged into activist circles. In China, since 1949, no groups have been allowed in. A human rights monitoring effort in China invariably means arrest. What allows Lu to exist is his base in Hong Kong, and his sources."
CHINA watchers say his sources who report on news that is omitted or not considered for official media give Lu's operation its edge. For example, China to this day has not reported on nearly two months of protests both in the north and the south of laid off workers seeking pensions and back pay.
Until last year, Lu ran his entire operation out of a single crowded room in a Hong Kong walk-up. Since 1996, he has single-handedly put out some 2,500 reports on cases of abuse twice as many as the three major China human-rights watch groups combined.
Lu was born in Hunan Province, in central China. But he says his parents left him when he was two months old. They were forced to participate in the Cultural Revolution, the Mao-dictated project of social engineering to overhaul traditional China. Lu was raised by a family friend, and did not see his parents for nearly 13 years. "This was very painful," he says. "I don't want to talk about it."
But he remembers reading Chinese characters at age 5, considered early. Such reading included the political posters that saturated public spaces during the Mao era. "Even then, I knew it was a lie. Even as a child, you have some judgment, and you see these writings, and you know they aren't true."
At the same time, Lu dreamed of being able to say what he wanted. "I wanted free expression. I was so angry. I felt the lie could not be changed, yet I remained angry at the lie.
Year by year, you think this over..."
Over the years, he has carved out a network of mainlanders willing to call his beeper. Some are remnants of the shattered political dissident movements or families or friends of detainees. Others are mainland Chinese reporters who phone him from public booths, where calls are harder to trace.
"I get a lot of leads on my pager from local journalists in China," says Lu.
"They know the big news, but are frustrated that they can't tell it. Some of the time, they feel guilty and they call."
This week, when China labor camp veteran and whistle blower Harry Wu was denied access to Hong Kong, when American Chinese scholars were detained, when members of the outlawed Falun Gong were sent to prison Lu sent a fax to media representatives throughout Asia.
Not all see Lu in laudatory terms, however. Some view him as a "one man band." He has been criticized for not sharing sources, for trying to monopolize, and at one point for belittling other groups. Moreover, when Lu first got started in the early 1990s, he was accused of fabricating two reports.
Yet in recent years, his reputation has turned around. He is now known for double-checking facts and hand writing press releases so they can't be forged or duplicated. "I've watched his faxes and reports for many years. What's amazing and I don't use that word often is that to my knowledge, I've never seen him proved wrong. Basically, there is everyone else, and there is Frank Lu."
In person Lu is unassuming, matter of fact, and a bit restless. He says he suffers from insomnia and other stress-related conditions. He changes cellphones every month, reports that he is sometimes followed, and worries that authorities in Hong Kong, evermore bending to authorities in Beijing, are looking for excuses to shut him down.
HE ALSO says that human-rights work has become extremely difficult. The Chinese economy has been performing well and a new generation of Chinese aren't interested. Funding is also difficult (Lu operates off one main $20,000 grant per year).
"The human rights period in China is slowing down," he says. "It has been forgotten."
To some, the point seems dramatized by the recent absence of criticism in the Geneva forum, an outcome China has long sought.
"Chinese security forces have been effective in rolling up all organized political dissent," says Andrew Nathan of Columbia University in New York. "The last organized movement I know of was the Chinese Democracy Party, all of whose leaders are now in jail. Human rights work on China is a hard slog for all the groups involved."
Beijing officials argue that, gradually, rights are improving in China. They say China has a different concept of human rights, and highlight progress in fundamental areas, like feeding and clothing their enormous population.
"China seeks mutual equality and respect [on the question of human rights]," said foreign media spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue. "China wishes to develop a common consensus and cooperation."
What Lu and others now focus on are crackdowns on underground churches, on spiritual movements like the Falun Gong inside China (itself, largely shut down), and the recent protests of xiagang, or laid off workers. Last month in Liaoning province, coal, steel, and petrochemical workers protested about what they say are inadequate pensions.
When asked why so many of his sources will talk with him, Lu says he adopts a very simple approach. When Lu calls a police station or the courts, or local witnesses, he doesn't say he is a human rights monitor. "They would just hang up." Instead, he says, he operates on the assumption that people want to tell the truth. "I eventually say, 'I just want to know the truth,' and people respond."