In his fight for political change in China, student leader Wu'er Kaixi has lost his voice and 10 pounds, but the 21-year-old from remote Xinjiang province shows no sign of giving up.
The freshman has been at the forefront of demonstrations for democracy and a free press since April 20 when he singlehandedly organized a spontaneous sit-in near the gates of the Communist Party headquarters.With no microphone, Wu'er shouted down about 1,000 unruly students, making them sit quietly for several hours in protest. Hundreds of security forces then massed and charged the protesters, beating some and sending others fleeing.
"There's nothing I can do about it, I've always wanted to do what other people were afraid of," said the cocky young man from Beijing Normal University, cracking a dimpled smile.
Last week, after he appointed himself president of Beijing Normal's student association, the students approved his decision in one of the first student elections in a country that has always appointed its student representatives.
He also is a member of the independent all-city student association which has organized the protests. The communist government has called the organizations illegal. Wu'er said they represent the will of the students.
"I've been leading students since I started school," he said in a recent interview in a cramped student dormitory room at his school. "In high school I didn't think twice about standing up on the table and shouting if we needed more light bulbs or an official hit a student,"
But now instead of light bulbs, Wu'er is calling for democracy.
"People are beginning to discover that I'm a dangerous man," he said with obvious relish. "That is a good thing."
Early in the protest, his school recognized that fact and had his father sent thousands of miles from Xinjiang to Beijing to urge him to stop his work.
"Putting pressure on my father was sick and disgusting," he said. "It won't work."
The demonstrations have taken their toll on his health.
"I haven't been eating much. When we spent the night at Tiananmen Square on Friday I didn't eat at all. My throat hurts from screaming, but my spirit is good."
Wu'er hails from China's remote northwest. Both his parents are of Turkish descent, belonging to the Uigur people, who dominated Central Asia between the 8th and the 12th centuries.
"I look at my status as a minority in this country of Han people as a bonus," he said. "We have an expression in Chinese: `The onlooker sees the game best.' I think I see the problems of the Han better because my blood is different."
Wu'er said he is little impressed with political thinkers from the West or China.
"I've always thought I had to go my own way," he said. "Some of my classmates worship America's system, but I think it's like the story about the king who asked his subjects to blow on their gold horns if they supported democracy. None of them had gold horns."
However, his personality, he said, resembles that of an American.
"I'm not conservative and I'm ready to say what's on my mind," he said. "The rest of my countrymen trouble me. So many won't dare to raise their heads."
This tendency, he said, has hurt China.
Wu'er said his country is like an "ancient boat, a junk, with holes in its sails and maybe a leak or two."
"The boat might founder, it might even sink. But the student movement - we're just like the guys with the straps on their shoulders pulling the boat up the river. We've used a lot of strength, a lot of sweat, even blood, but the boat hasn't moved much. But we've got to pull anyway."
Wu'er said he doesn't expect the movement to win concrete results.
"But we're part of a process in China. The weight of 1.1 billion people is a heavy one and you can't budge it in a day."
On Thursday, Wu'er led his university as it marched 20 miles through the streets of Beijing with 150,000 students and other supporters in the biggest march in China's history.
"Finally, we are victorious," he said as he trudged home from a long day of standoffs with police. "Finally."
He admits to being afraid for the future.
"Maybe this idea is a little strange, but if they arrest me I don't want to be sent to jail for a traffic violation during a protest. If I'm going to jail I want to be a political prisoner."