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

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

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.