Li Lu was born and raised in Tangshan, China. He is a survivor of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake. In 1985 he went to Nanjing University, majoring in physics, later switching to economics. In 1989, he participated in the student protests in Tiananmen Square (also known as the Tian'anmen Massacre) and became one of the student leaders. He helped organise the students and participated in a hunger strike. He fled the People's Republic of China with the help of the organisation Operation Yellowbird.
He left China to study at Columbia University in the United States. In 1990, he published a book about his experience with China entitled Moving the Mountain: My Life in China.