Xiong Yan and his friends, once daring, brash and full of hope, thought they could change China and led thousands of students into Beijing's Tian An Men Square.
Now, three years after the government's bloody crackdown on the pro-democracy student movement he helped lead and 18 months in prison, Xiong has not changed.
"I got more committed," he said.
But his life has changed. The intense and idealistic former Beijing University law student is living in Alhambra, days after seeking political asylum in the United States.
Xiong, 28, was one of a group of student leaders who for a few heady weeks led a brazen call for freedom of speech, assembly and more openness on the part of the Chinese government, when they occupied the symbolic heart of Beijing, Tian An Men Square.
To the outside world, Xiong was best known for an impassioned statement to Premier Li Peng, who at that time agreed to a dialogue with the students, which was televised. "Regardless of whether the government recognizes the student movement, Chinese history will," Xiong told the premier.
It was Li who issued the order for martial law that resulted in the massacre of hundreds, perhaps thousands of citizens as the army shot its way into Beijing a month later, on June 4, 1989.
Xiong was among 21 students whose names appeared on a wanted list shortly after the June 4 crackdown and he was the first to be arrested.
Speaking through an interpreter Saturday, the short, thin and bespectacled Xiong said his experiences--including being captured and beaten by soldiers, an 18-month incarceration without a trial, illness caused by prison conditions and now an uncertain future--have not weakened his ideals.
He even sees a positive lesson from the Los Angeles unrest because they have led to debates over social problems. "As long as people can express themselves, it's not like people in China," Xiong said. "Even though there's injustice there, they cannot express it at all."
Recounting the events leading up to the crackdown, Xiong said he had not been involved in any pro-democracy movement before he went to pursue graduate studies in Beijing in late 1986. He grew up in Hunan, where his mother is a doctor and his father is an auto mechanic. He was a Communist Party member.
Political controls had loosened in that period, Xiong said, allowing more open dialogue, and his feelings began to change. He and other students felt they could not ignore social problems stemming from economic development.
"There was corruption, government officials getting involved in business deals, inflation and unequal distribution of wealth," Xiong said.
The days in the square began May 13, 1989, with a hunger strike, which Xiong organized. He recalled living in a bus that had been turned into a student "command post" at the square, and venturing out to make speeches, asking workers for support.
When the crackdown occurred, Xiong was in the streets. "I saw a parade of soldiers on trucks and tanks, shooting," he said. He helped carry a stranger who had been shot in the chest to a hospital and saw that the facility was soon overwhelmed by the wounded.
Dismayed, Xiong grabbed a phone to call a government ministry, a television station and the Communist Party offices, believing they were not aware that people were being killed. The government operator "took a message," the television station advised him to report the story himself and "send it in," and the party official hung up on him.
That night, citizens who recognized him in the street hid Xiong from authorities. Two days later, he fled Beijing by train, heading for northwest China. Nine days later, he was arrested.
Soldiers beat him and took him to a prison where he remained until January, 1991. Confined alone or with up to six cellmates at various times, he got little to eat and was allowed only half an hour outside each week, he said. He was beaten twice, he said, once for "no reason," and once for tapping on a cell wall. Mostly, he said, he read books sent by his family, including works by German philosophers and the American economist Paul A. Samuelson.
After his release, Xiong rejoined his wife, who works as a typist, in Beijing. Ill from prison conditions, he could barely walk for months. The government refused to issue him an identity card, which made it impossible to legally live anywhere, get a job or buy food. A virtual outcast in his homeland, he left last May with the help of friends.
Xiong said he wants to continue his studies but is unsure how he will support himself. "I miss my wife," he said, and does not know when he will see her again.
His goal for now, he said, is "to be a bridge between the overseas democratic forces and the movement in China."