During the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Tian An Men Square, Liu Gang built a reputation as one of the boldest, most defiant student leaders.
After he was sent to prison on charges of "conspiracy to subvert the government," Liu said, he endured beatings, shackles and solitary confinement but refused to sign a confession demanded by his jailers in exchange for better treatment. Instead, he staged hunger strikes and enraged authorities by smuggling out a letter detailing appalling prison conditions.
Liu, 34, the son of a police officer, was still battling Sunday when he was released after serving the full six years of his term. "I protested that they had kept me 6 1/2 hours extra," he said in a telephone interview from his family home in Jilin province.
Probably because of his prison activism and refusal to admit guilt--which Chinese prison authorities consider essential to rehabilitation--Liu was the last of the main 1989 student leaders to be released from prison. After that year's crackdown by the Chinese army, Liu was third on the government's list of most-wanted student leaders.
His sentence from the Beijing Intermediate People's Court included a two-year ban on political activity after his release. Liu said he was warned before being freed "not to talk to the hostile forces," and his family home in the city of Liaoyuan was surrounded by what a relative described as "dozens" of plainclothes police.
But Liu remained defiant as ever when he was contacted by reporters Sunday. He described frequent beatings in prison. He said that, after one hunger strike, he was placed in solitary confinement in a room the prisoners called "the matchbox." During one three-month period, he said, prison authorities refused to allow him to bathe or even brush his teeth.
During his time in prison, Liu was reported by several international human rights organizations to have suffered numerous physical ailments. But Liu said that his health improved after a visit by five U.S. journalists in March.
The journalists were given only a brief view of Liu through the window of the warden's office in the Lingyuan Labor-Reform Camp in Liaoning province, and requests to interview Liu were denied. But Liu said conditions improved immediately after the visit.
"They started serving me rice every day instead of cornmeal," he said. He described his medical condition now as "not bad," although he had not yet seen a doctor since his release.
Before receiving his master's degree in physics from Beijing University, Liu attended the Chinese Institute of Science and Technology in Hefei, Anhui province, where he was a student of dissident astrophysicist Fang Lizhi. Fang, who now lives in the United States after taking refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in 1989, is one of the most active overseas Chinese dissidents.
At Beijing University in 1988, Liu was one of the organizers of "democracy salons" regularly held on campus. Later he became close to dissident leaders Chen Ziming and Wang Juntao, whom the Chinese government later labeled the "black hands" behind the 1989 demonstrations.
Chen and Wang were released from prison for medical reasons in May, 1994, before their terms were completed. Chen lives under constant surveillance outside Beijing. Wang lives in forced exile in the United States.
With 90-year-old leader Deng Xiaoping ailing and a battle for power looming after his death, the government lately has taken a hard-line stand against dissent.
The whereabouts of one of China's most famous dissidents, Wei Jingsheng, remain unknown after he disappeared from sight in April, when public security officers forced him out of a car traveling between the port city of Tianjin and Beijing. Before the sixth anniversary of the Tian An Men incident this month, authorities arrested or detained more than 30 dissidents.
In such an atmosphere, it is uncertain how someone as outspoken as Liu, who openly criticizes the Communist Party, will fare. Authorities have already warned him not to venture outside his family housing compound.
"The mood here is very nervous," said a brother, Liu Baotian, who is with Liu Gang in Jilin province. "We are under very strict conditions."