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He wasa truck mechanic who wanted to change China.

In the heat of the 1989 protests at Tiananmen Square, Lu Decheng and two friends lobbed paint-filled eggshells at Mao's portrait in Tiananmen Square. Turned in by student protesters, he was sentenced to 16 years in prison for "counter-revolutionary destruction." One got life in prison, the other got 20 years.

"I have no regrets," Mr. Lu said softly in Chinese in his first in-depth interview. "In a repressive dictatorship, if no one has a spirit of sacrifice, we will never achieve democracy. This is China's tragedy."

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He was 25 then. He's 42 now, with scars from prison beatings, a broken marriage and an uncertain future in Canada. After authorities released him -- after 10 years -- he slipped into Myanmar and then Thailand, hoping to attract attention for his friend serving life. Instead, Thai authorities arrested him. Canada granted him refugee status, and in April, he arrived in Calgary.

For years, his motivation remained a secret. Now, even though his second wife and their six-year-old son remain behind in China, Mr. Lu is speaking for the first time.

Yesterday, he flew into Toronto for Sunday's 8 p.m. vigil at the University of Toronto's Hart House Circle on the 17th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre. In his pinstriped suit and tie, Mr. Lu could pass for a computer programmer. Except that he wasn't sure whether Toronto was east or west of Calgary, and he had no idea there was a two-hour time difference.

He speaks almost no English. The first word he learned here was "chili" because he yearns for the spicy food of his native Hunan province. A slight man with unruly hair that flops over his forehead, Mr. Lu speaks with the same southern accent as Mao Zedong. They were born a mere 150 kilometres apart, but there any similarity ends.

At 17, Mr. Lu got his mechanic's licence, and learned to drive a truck. He got married and had a baby girl. When the protests started in April of 1989, he and his friends began to pay attention to politics. "We wanted to support the student protesters," he said. "We felt that the absolute power of the Chinese Communist Party would unavoidably lead to corruption and decay."

They made a pact. Whoever wanted to go to Beijing should show up the next day at the train station in Changsha, the provincial capital. Mr. Lu's wife was out of town. They were very much in love, but she was uninterested in politics. So he left a cryptic note on the kitchen table: "I'm going north to support the students."

The next day, five showed up and pasted pro-democracy slogans on the station walls. But the night train to Beijing was sold out. Friendly arms pulled them aboard when passengers learned they wanted to support the hunger strikers. The conductor came up with footstools, which they plunked down near the washroom sinks.

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Mr. Lu had never spent a night away from home. But 23 hours later, he and his friends, arms linked, were marching to Tiananmen Square under a red cloth banner that said, "Down with Deng Xiaoping." There were tens of thousands of protesters, as many as lived in his small county town of Liuyang. That night, he and his friends slept next to Mao's mausoleum.

The next day, Chinese authorities declared martial law. Alarmed, Mr. Lu and two of his friends wrote a proclamation, declaring it illegal because the government had not received approval from China's parliament. In vain, they tried to get the students to broadcast it.

A few nights later, frustrated and worried they were missing a unique chance to push China towards democracy, the trio considered self-immolation in Tiananmen Square, but feared their suicides might be misinterpreted. Smoking and passionately debating what to do next, Mr. Lu's childhood friend, Yu Zhijian, a primary school teacher, glanced at the iconic portrait of Chairman Mao. "It's because his dark soul has never been vanquished!" Mr. Yu declared. "It's all his fault."

At first they wanted to pull it down, but decided that was impossible. The third friend, Yu Dongyue (no relation), who had studied fine arts, suggested defacing it with paint.

"We didn't want to commit violence, so we didn't use glass bottles. We used eggshells," Mr. Lu recalled.

The next morning, they purchased red, yellow, black, blue and green paint. They mailed letters home. "Take care of yourself," Mr. Lu wrote to his wife. "Raise our daughter well. I won't be coming home."

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At noon, they bought 30 eggs from a sidewalk fast-food vendor, lopped off the tops, and asked him to make their last meal: omelettes. They filled the shells with paint. While Yu Zhijian prevented people from walking through the gate under the portrait, Mr. Lu and Yu Dongyue began hurling eggs as fast as they could. It was a stunning act of lèse-majesté.

"I remember bystanders started applauding," Mr. Lu said. "Some people disapproved, but I felt the majority were with us."

Student security guards grabbed the trio. Mr. Lu and his friends went willingly and answered questions. Later that afternoon, the students called a press conference where he answered questions. Back in Hunan, Mr. Lu's father saw the evening news and fell to the floor, crying: "It's all over, it's all over." Mr. Lu's wife had a nervous breakdown.

In a move that has never been fully explained, the students later handed Mr. Lu and his friends over to police. At the time, I was The Globe's Beijing correspondent. By the time I reached Tiananmen Square, officials had already draped an olive tarpaulin over the vandalized portrait. A day later, a new portrait was up, showing Mao with a hint of a smile.

I interviewed the student commander Huang Qinglin, a delicate, high-strung young woman, who told me she feared the incident could turn public opinion against the students at a crucial time. "We don't want the government to have an excuse to attack us."

Ms. Huang, who said she was majoring in public relations at China Social University, said she suspected the three were government provocateurs. After the military crackdown, I slipped into her school to see if she was all right. No one there had heard of her. The school didn't offer courses in public relations. In the end, I suspect, Ms. Huang was a government agent.

"I never thought the students would turn us in," Mr. Lu said yesterday, when I told him what I knew. He also doesn't understand why he and his friends received such harsh sentences when many student activists got two to four years.

In jail in Hunan, Mr. Lu shared a cell with 20 others, mostly common criminals. Some curried favour with the guards by beating him. He was subjected to brainwashing. He and other inmates toiled 14 to 16 hours a day making Christmas tree lights for sale in the West.

"We had production quotas. If we didn't finish, we'd get a warning. After two warnings, they'd handcuff us to the bars and beat us."

He was released ahead of time in 1994 as China strove to improve its human-rights image. Yu Zhijian, the school teacher who had been sentenced to life, was released in 2001, but was swiftly rearrested when he staged a hunger strike protesting violence against political dissidents. Yu Dongyue was released three months ago, and is now mentally ill.

Mr. Lu's wife, who tried to visit him in jail, was pressured into divorcing him in 1995. He remarried in 1998, and had a son.

In Calgary, supporters found him a $10-an-hour job on the night shift at a mid-sized petroleum machinery factory owned by a Chinese-Canadian. A co-worker from mainland China offered him lifts to and from the factory -- until word spread about who he was. The offer was rescinded, and no one dared step in.

"I can't get a bus home at 3 a.m., so I had to quit," Mr. Lu said, sadly. "It shows you how frightened people are of China." He's looking for another job so he won't be a burden on his sponsors, five Chinese-Canadians who read about him on the Internet and decided to help.

Meanwhile, his wife wants to join him. So far, authorities have refused to issue her a passport. "They told her, 'From the day you married Lu Decheng, you have forfeited the right to a passport.' " He hopes to return to a democratic China one day.

For now, he is adapting to life in Canada. He is amazed by the squirrels that scamper freely in the park, with no one trying to slaughter and eat them. And he is stunned by the traffic.

"Canadians stop at red lights. Even when no one is around, they wait for it to turn green. If only people in China were like that. What a civilized country this is!"

CLARIFICATION

Jan Wong's more than four-hour long interview with Chinese dissident Lu Decheng was his first in-depth, face-to-face interview in Canada. In April, he gave a 15-minute interview, through an interpreter, with CBC Radio.

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