JAIME A. FLORCRUZI had lived in Beijing since the Cultural Revolution, and I could tell that this movement was different. The young people who gathered at Tiananmen Square in 1989 were just as passionate as the Red Guards of my youth, but this time I noticed a remarkable absence of violence and xenophobia. Instead, there was gentleness and camaraderie. I remember overhearing a man profusely saying duibuqi (sorry) to another for stepping on his foot. Lijie wansui! (Long live understanding!), came the good-natured response.
Days later, however, the mood turned grim. Demonstrators blocked the streets to prevent People's Liberation Army troops from moving into the city. Dialogue between government officials and student leaders broke down. At the end of May, martial law was declared. Thousands of soldiers in trucks, armored personnel carriers and tanks encircled Beijing. Tensions rose. Rumors of a split in the Chinese leadership and a possible civil war gripped Beijing.
In front of my apartment, about 2 km east of the square, a convoy of army trucks stood bumper-to-bumper. Students had blocked their advance, chanting Xia lai! Xia lai! (Come down!) Amid the commotion, an armored personnel carrier plowed through the crowd, made a U-turn, then sped off, knocking over a truck loaded with students. In an instant, one man lay on the ground, his head a mush of red and pink on the gray concrete. They're killing us, shrieked a woman. Civilians pushed toward the army vehicles, beseeching the military to go home. Soldiers listened silently; several cried. I overheard a soldier tell his comrades, Let's just overturn our truck and leave. In the wee hours of June 4, tanks rumbled past my window and toward Tiananmen.
I felt a sense of déja vu. Before I left the Philippines to visit China in 1971, I was a student activist, just like those hunger strikers on the square, angry about social injustice and yearning for an ideal world. Some of us were persecuted, arrested and exiled, but somehow we all survived. We were not always right, but we had the purest of intentions. Several weeks after the massacre, I found myself in New York City watching a Broadway version of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, which portrays idealistic French youths who die fighting behind the barricades. After the suppression, a Parisian woman sings a dirge: They were schoolboys; they had no guns. They only wished for a rising sun. I remembered, as I still do, the naive, valiant youths of Tiananmen.
Jaime A. FlorCruz, TIME's Beijing bureau chief, has lived in China for the past 28 years