Wu Lihong's wife gave him a birthday present when he returned home from Beijing in late 2005 after being recognised as one of the mainland's 10 top folk environmentalists. Her husband was born in 1968, the year of the monkey according to the Chinese zodiac, and the gift Xu Jiehua gave him was a small ornament featuring three little monkeys, one covering its mouth, another its eyes and the third its ears. 'I hope you can step back from your environmental protection cause and keep a low profile,' she said. 'You just follow them: don't talk about things you are not supposed to say, don't look at stuff you are not supposed to see and don't listen to whatever you are not supposed to hear.' Wu appreciated the gift but ignored her advice. Less than two years later, he became the first environmentalist to be jailed on the mainland. His stubborn persistence in trying to protect Tai Lake, China's third-largest freshwater lake, had turned him from an eco-pioneer hailed by the central government to the scourge of a local government fixated on economic growth. He has continued to suffer for his stance. Only last month, while on his way home from an inspection of Tai Lake, he was stopped and beaten by three men as a warning to stop 'meddling in other people's business'. He says the men will also be nursing some bruises. Wu first raised the alarm over industrial pollution around the lake in the early 1990s, alerting the Jiangsu provincial government and the central authorities to the problem. His hometown, Zhoutie in Yixing , sits on the lake's northwestern shore. Wu spent his childhood swimming and catching fish in the lake, renowned for its beauty and abundance for centuries. But in 1980s, as the economy began to take off, he noticed the lake becoming murky and smelly, with many dead fish floating on its surface. Likening himself to the naive boy in Hans Christian Andersen's famous tale The Emperor's New Clothes, who tells the truth while others opt for flattery and lies, Wu said he reported the pollution and asked that the factories responsible be shut. 'It's the thousands of polluting factories still operating around the lake that have contributed the most to Tai's contamination,' he says. 'But the local government does not acknowledge this and makes domestic media run positive stories to cover up Tai's serious pollution. 'The core of the problem is corruption. Officials only care about economic development, which is closely linked to their promotion prospects, and many factory owners have given shares to officials. That means local government is unwilling to tackle industrial pollution, let alone close the factories at fault.' The authorities tried various means to silence him including giving him an easy job in a grassroots culture department, which he took for two years, and offering him millions of yuan to abandon his volunteer environmental campaign. In mid-2006, when Yixing was competing to become a 'national environmental protection model city', Wu said some top government leaders promised him a villa in the city and a construction contract worth 30 million yuan (HK$34.34 million) if he stopped reporting pollution. He refused the offer and instead took a China Central Television reporter to the small Caoqiao River, which leads into Tai Lake, where they found dirty, foul-smelling water. A day later, when an environmental inspection team and journalists arrived at the same site, the water was clear and the smell gone. Wu said it was 'routine practice' for polluting factories to suspend operations before an inspection and flush away foul water. The CCTV reporter returned to the scene two days later and found the river once again running black, with dead fish floating on the surface. The smell was so bad the reporter was sick. The provincial environmental department and the National People's Congress were shocked when CCTV's report was broadcast, but that did not stop Yixing being named an environmental model city that year - a status it has maintained ever since. Wu was made another offer two months after he was detained by officials from Yixing's national security department on April 13, 2007. They accused him of links with foreign countries and of subverting the state. 'In custody they presented me with the same offer, as long as I gave up my criticism,' Wu says. 'Otherwise they would fabricate evidence to make me a criminal.' He turned it down again. 'Fame and wealth are valueless to me,' he says. 'I only do what I believe in.' Wu says several senior policemen forced him, after five days of torture, to confess to fraud and extortion. 'In a windowless room they used tree branches to whip my head, burned my hands with cigarettes, kicked me and knocked my head on the wall until my arms and legs were swollen and my head was spinning,' he says On the day of his 'open' trial - August 10, 2007 - he says there were no plaintiffs or witnesses in the court, just a few hundred officials. Only his wife was allowed in, with journalists from overseas media outlets blocked at the gates of the court complex. The Yixing People's Court sentenced Wu to three years' jail for fraud and extortion, amid a crackdown on activists ahead of a politically sensitive Communist Party gathering in October, when leaders always stress unity even as economic development creates divisions over issues such as corruption, the income gap and labour conditions. 'I heard that Yixing leaders regretted jailing me,' he says. 'They said it was a lose-lose situation because the city is now notorious around the world.' He says he suffered 'spiritual torture' in prison. He shared a room with three mentally disabled prisoners and was shunned because anyone who talked to him was slapped on the face 20 times and cited for 'bad behaviour'. During his wife's twice-monthly visits, four guards stood by to monitor their conversation and interrupted if they used their local dialect rather than Putonghua. Since his release on April 12, Wu and his wife have been under close surveillance by plain-clothes police, with four motorcycles and a car parked near their house every day. The couple's fixed-line and mobile phones are often monitored and their mail is intercepted. He's planning an appeal to the Supreme People's Court in Beijing, saying his previous appeals in Jiangsu have all failed. 'I would like to reverse my conviction, seek state compensation and get the people involved punished accordingly,' he says. Polluting enterprises will not be deterred and villagers will not dare speak out about Tai Lake's pollution unless his conviction is overturned, he believes. Wu says his stubborn character was formed when he was very young and he will never concede that white is black. 'Since I am a straightforward person, I was prepared to be jailed long ago,' he says. 'I am not frightened of the authorities because I believe what I have been doing is the right thing and beneficial for all the people.' He says his motivation to do something about the pollution increased when he saw friends and classmates die from various forms of cancer. Dozens of villagers living around Tai Lake have been diagnosed with cancer over the past couple of years and residents believe pollution from nearby factories is to blame. Affluent cities and towns close to Tai Lake, including Changzhou , Wuxi and Suzhou , have the highest overall cancer rates in Jiangsu, according to a national survey in 2006. Wu says the population of his village has decreased significantly because lots of rich farmers have moved to nearby cities to avoid the foul-smelling water, choking air and 'toxic' rice and vegetables grown in the area. 'Rich people buy rice produced elsewhere and poor people have to eat local rice, which I believe is toxic,' Wu says. 'We know it's dangerous, but we are helpless.' Wu has been unemployed since his release from prison and his wife has two jobs in garment factories, working 16 hours a day, to make ends meet. She's exhausted but says she has no complaints, even though she still worries about her husband's persecution. 'I am an ordinary village woman and would love to live a peaceful life ... though I understand what he did is the right thing, and he is such a pure and straightforward person,' she says. Xu says their only child, a daughter now at university, has become accustomed to police harassment and searches of their home. 'Many years ago, my daughter asked me: 'Is father a bad guy because he is such a target of the police?' I told her: 'Your father is man of integrity and you will understand the story when you grow up.' 'Three years ago, when Wu was arrested, the students and teachers at my daughter's middle school all called him a hero.'