Lu Yuegang calls himself, only half-jokingly, a "hooligan journalist." When he sees things that are unjust, he goes mad. A hulk of a man with long sideburns and a warm laugh, Lu had been a reporter with China Youth Daily for 10 years when, in 1996, he heard the story of the acid attack against Wu Fang. He was outraged and flew to Shaanxi to hear her story firsthand. In August of that year his paper published his article, "The Strange Affair of the Destroyed Face." That's when the trouble startedin the form of a libel suit launched against him and the newspaper by the village of Fenghuo and its two most prominent inhabitants, local Communist Party secretary Wang Baojing and his son Wang Nongye.
Lu, a 42-year-old Sichuan native, was no stranger to controversyhe had already written a book criticizing the Three Gorges Dam, a high-profile project championed by some of China's highest-ranking leaders. Lu wasn't reprimanded for that, in part because other journalists had taken up the same crusade. With Wu Fang, however, he was on his own. And the more he dug into her case, the more obsessed he became with it. "She is an amazing woman," says Lu. "Anyone else would have committed suicide."
When the libel case was filed, Lu was gratified that his bosses at the paper said they would stand behind him. He braced for the fight, making several trips to Shaanxi for further research. In 1998 he wrote a 518-page book about the case, Big Country Small People. The book painstakingly reconstructed the acid attack and delved deeply into Wang Baojing's record as a "model worker." Lu found that claims of record harvests under Wang Baojing's supervision were largely spurious. He also cast doubt on whether Wang had actually met Mao 13 times as he claimed. "Maybe he saw Mao from a distance in Tiananmen Square," says Lu.
In June the court ruled against China Youth Daily in the libel suit, although the presiding judge declined to give any reasons for his verdict. Lu is determined to push on with the appeal, even though he realizes the chances of succeeding in Shaanxi's courts aren't great. He simply can't give up. "First, because of Wu Fangshe is just a villager, and she has had very unfair treatment. Second, because we all live under the same sun as Wu Fangwhat happened to her could happen to us."
Last month Lu was in Xian for the opening of the appeal. On hand were several journalists from Beijing who had finally woken up to the story. Lu was upbeat until the day before the court hearing, when the judge suddenly announced that the session would be closed to the press because it was a "state secret." As Lu's lawyer went to protest the decisionin vain, it would turn outLu sat in a hotel coffee shop, cursing the system. "We never really thought we could win the case, but we hoped to tell people about it." Despairing, he posted a press release on the paper's website to announce that the court would be closed to the presswithin minutes his mobile phone was ringing with calls from journalists all over China pledging their support. Lu brightened up: "I'm strong enough to fight these guys to the end. You have to be a hooligan to deal with hooligans." With corruption and abuse of power at record levels, China needs more hooligans like Lu Yuegang.