Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Reflections from the front line of Tiananmen protests, 25 years on

By Jaime A. FlorCruz, CNN Beijing bureau chief
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 0930 GMT (1730 HKT)
A student displays a banner on the march to Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 25 years ago.
A student displays a banner on the march to Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 25 years ago.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • CNN Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz was a TIME correspondent in Beijing in 1989
  • 25 years ago he received a 2 a.m. phone call informing him of a student march on Tiananmen
  • He followed the students on their march, inspired by the death of a sacked Party chief
  • He had little notion that what would unfold would shake China and grip the world's attention

Beijing (CNN) -- It was 2 a.m. on Sunday April 18, 1989 when the phone rang, jolting me out of bed. I recognized the distinctive voice of the caller Jiang Liren, a student at Peking University, also known in Chinese as Beida.

"Our group is marching out of Beida now," he said excitedly. "We are going to Tiananmen Square. If you want to see this rally, you better come now."

Jiang was a student leader I had befriended weeks earlier while visiting Beida, my alma mater. For months, Beida had been the center of student ferment.

I was then a correspondent for TIME in China. Of course, I was keen to cover what seemed like a reawakening of campus activism.

I grabbed my satchel, bolted from our apartment and drove to Peking University, some 12 miles from the city center. I was more excited than tense. It had been a long time since Chinese had dared demonstrate on the streets.

Tension had been building in Beijing, in the officialdom and among political activists, since Hu Yaobang was unceremoniously dismissed as Communist Party chief.

Hu was lined up to succeed his mentor Deng Xiaoping, but he was sacked for being too soft on "bourgeois liberalization", a catchphrase for Western political ideas and cultural influences.

He was specifically blamed for failing to suppress waves of student demonstrations that buffeted several Chinese cities from December 1986 to January 1987. Upon Hu's dismissal, Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang took over as acting General Secretary.

On April 15, 1989, Hu Yaobang died after suffering a heart attack. His death came as a shock to many Chinese, especially among Beijing's intelligentsia who considered the defrocked leader as a champion of reform.

Students lionized Hu as a open-minded Communist leader.

Past midnight on April 18, more than 4,000 students from Peking University and People's University marched out of their campuses and set off on a 12-mile bivouac to Tiananmen Square.

Holding hands and linking arms, the students chanted patriotic slogans and sung the national anthem and the Internationale, the Communist Party's anthem.

As their ranks swelled I abandoned my car and followed their march for four hours.

Hundreds of Beijing residents joined the procession, on foot and on their bicycles. Police arrived but did not try to stop them.

It was a precedent-setting breach of the government ban on demonstrations.

READ MORE: 25 years on, Tiananmen no less taboo for censors

When the rallyists reached the mostly empty and unlighted Square, a dozen protesters unfurled a 20-foot long white sheet of cloth. Splashed on it in big black characters: CHINA'S SOUL.

By then it was daybreak.

As the students dispersed peacefully, I walked back home, pondering what the march meant and how I could get TIME editors interested in doing a story.

My editors did not need much prompting.

For the next few days, students continued their public gatherings, making speeches, writing posters, staging sit-ins and marching in the streets.

Their numbers swelled as students from other colleges joined in. At each turn of events, the indecision and successive blunders of the Chinese authorities served only to embolden the protesters, and widen what evolved into an epic student movement.

Week after week for over two months, the global media's attention focused on Tiananmen, as the students and their supporters denounced official corruption and clamored for reforms, freedom and democracy.

From April through June, TIME ran five cover stories, four consecutively, on the Tiananmen protests.

Little did I know that, when I was awakened by that early morning phone call, it would be just the beginning of what would later be known alternatively as the "Tiananmen Incident" and the "Tiananmen Massacre", a student movement that would snowball into a massive People Power protest -- and end so tragically on June 4, 1989.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 0538 GMT (1338 HKT)
Home-grown hip-hop appeals to a younger generation but its popularity has not translated into record deals and profits for budding rap artists.
September 9, 2014 -- Updated 0545 GMT (1345 HKT)
Reforms to the grueling gaokao - the competitive college entrance examination - don't make the grade, says educator Jiang Xueqin.
September 5, 2014 -- Updated 1218 GMT (2018 HKT)
Beijing grapples with reports from Iraq that a Chinese national fighting for ISIS has been captured.
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 0200 GMT (1000 HKT)
CNN's David McKenzie has tasted everything from worms to grasshoppers while on the road; China's cockroaches are his latest culinary adventure.
September 5, 2014 -- Updated 0057 GMT (0857 HKT)
Beijing rules only candidates approved by a nominating committee can run for Hong Kong's chief executive.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
China warns the United States to end its military surveillance flights near Chinese territory.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0312 GMT (1112 HKT)
China has produced elite national athletes but some argue the emphasis on winning discourages children. CNN's Kristie Lu Stout reports
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 0513 GMT (1313 HKT)
Chinese are turning to overseas personal shoppers to get their hands on luxury goods at lower prices.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 0908 GMT (1708 HKT)
Experts say rapidly rising numbers of Christians are making it harder for authorities to control the religion's spread.
August 11, 2014 -- Updated 0452 GMT (1252 HKT)
"I'm proud of their moral standing," says Harvey Humphrey. His parents are accused of corporate crimes in China.
August 6, 2014 -- Updated 1942 GMT (0342 HKT)
A TV confession detailing a life of illegal gambling and paid-for sex has capped the dramatic fall of one of China's most high-profile social media celebrities.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 0410 GMT (1210 HKT)
President Xi Jinping's campaign to punish corrupt Chinese officials has snared its biggest target -- where can the campaign go from here?
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 0712 GMT (1512 HKT)
All you need to know about the tainted meat produce that affects fast food restaurants across China, Hong Kong, and Japan.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 0230 GMT (1030 HKT)
Some savvy individuals in China are claiming naming rights to valuable foreign brands. Here's how companies can combat them.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 0911 GMT (1711 HKT)
Is the Chinese president a true reformist or merely a "dictator" in disguise? CNN's Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz dissects the leader's policies
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 0344 GMT (1144 HKT)
With a population of 1.3 billion, you'd think that there would be 11 people in China who are good enough to put up a fight on the football pitch.
ADVERTISEMENT