The 53-year-old mother of two from China’s eastern Jiangsu province appears no different from other park visitors, dressed in a loose shirt for summer and with short hair graying at the temples. But she has an unusual calling in life: She’s a full-time protester.
[…] Ms. Shen illustrates the changing dynamics of the Chinese protest movement since the military crackdown on protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square 20 years ago, on June 3 and 4, 1989. China’s government, which has defended its response to those protests, has never given a full accounting of the casualties from that crackdown, but hundreds of people are believed to have been killed. Back then, protesters were demanding democracy and denouncing corruption and economic mismanagement. The leaders were student intellectuals — the elite of Chinese society.
A number of prominent intellectuals are still pushing for broad political reform. But street protests these days are organized mainly by activists like Ms. Shen, who act as champions for workers, farmers and small business owners who have run out of legal options.
Many activists today aren’t college-educated. Ms. Shen says her education was cut short by the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, which closed schools and colleges. Some of the most high-profile demonstrations in recent years were organized by laid-off factory workers, residents of China’s poor countryside, and taxi drivers.