A decade later, they were allowed back to their home near the Yangtze River in Hubei province. But Mr. Li had been stripped of innocence.
“If you have been through that kind of life experience, you just know that society is not right – there’s just something wrong,” he says.
Driven to succeed and intellectually curious – he skipped breakfast for half a month to save enough money to buy Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Confessions – he poured his energy into his studies.
The year he graduated high school, he posted Hubei’s top score in the gaokao, China’s nationwide placement test.
That was a ticket to law school at Peking University, the pinnacle of the Chinese education system – and at that time a haven for liberal thought. He raided the campus library for more books by Rousseau, as well as Voltaire, John Locke and Greek philosophers.
“People are born equal!” he says, still speaking with the joy of discovery. “I was so surprised. It’s so simple.” Western thought “wiped out all the wrong ideas” of submitting to the power of the Chinese system.
He was 22 in the spring of 1989, and joined both the protests and the ensuing hunger strike. On the evening of June 3, with tanks converging on Tiananmen Square, he arrived at Muxidi, an area near the square where some of the Communist Party’s top officials lived. There, students had erected blockades and set a bus on fire.
As Mr. Li approached on a bicycle, he heard gunfire. He was convinced that it must be rubber bullets. When he arrived moments later, he looked in disbelief at the very real carnage left by troops.
“It cannot be true,” he thought, before moving into action.
He helped carry the injured to taxis and carts, which took them to hospitals. His clothes were red with blood when he stood up to throw a rock at an armed military vehicle. A soldier raised his rifle and trained it at him. Mr. Li collapsed to the ground behind a flower pot. Bullets smashed into the wall behind him.
“I lost my thoughts,” he says. “That’s probably the most dangerous moment I’ve been through.”
That night also changed his path. He finished his law degree, but barely practised. Instead, he travelled the country advocating for farmers and migrant workers.
In 1994, authorities cracked down on him and his fellow activists, jailing some. He escaped, hiding out for a year before being plucked from China by Operation Yellowbird, the Hong Kong effort that saw a preacher, a triad gangster and embassy staff smuggle out dozens of Tiananmen protesters wanted by the authorities.
He was one of Yellowbird’s last rescues and, at 30, made his way to Canada.
But between studying English, washing dishes and working, Mr. Li devoted his time to figuring out how to dismantle the regime that first shot at him, then chased him out of his country.
With the same rigour he once devoted to French philosophers, he has studied other revolutions – Korea, the Philippines, Eastern Europe. He has closely watched the Arab Spring too. “They used lots of tactics that highly relied on the Internet. And that’s something we can copy – and do even better in China,” he says.
He knows the Chinese state moves with lightning speed to spy on communications, censor anything it doesn’t like and detain anyone doing anything it considers dangerous. But short of shutting down social media, the censors can’t stop everything.
“Before they delete words, those words have already spread,” he says.
His own words have spread, too. His book, Strategies for Changing the Regime, is distributed online, available for purchase in Hong Kong, and has circulated in mainland China. In very quiet ways his strategies are having an impact, says Mr Li. He doesn’t know the precise number, but groups are forming. Leaders, he says, will naturally emerge once groups begin to co-ordinate an effort to topple the government.
“So we can weave a net across the country,” he says. “There is no centre of power. Every part can run individually.”
And there is a latent risk to a country whose leadership has built its power on ever-rising wealth. What happens if the growth stops? With China now saddled with a heavy debt load and dimming financial prospects, Mr. Li sees an opportunity to push for change – not just among career activists, or those, like him, who lived through Tiananmen and still hold onto their ideals, but from a new generation of regular people deeply discontented with the inequality in the country.
“When the next economic recession starts, the revolution has a very good chance,” he says.
“It’s getting very, very close. Theoretically, revolution could happen any day.”