Experience: I survived Tiananmen Square

Experience: In 1985 I became a student at Beijing University and quickly got involved in politics

In 1985 I became a student at Beijing University and quickly got involved in politics. The university had a long tradition of activism, and within a fortnight I had watched my first campus protest. Soon I was organising them.

By 1989, there was a palpable sense that China was ready for change. Hu Yaobang's death on 15 April triggered what would become the biggest pro-democracy protests China had ever seen. Hu, an open-minded leader in the Communist party, was popular with students and teachers, and they mourned his death by marching to Tiananmen Square.

I drafted seven key demands we would later present to the government: they included official recognition of Hu's inspiring legacy, freedom of speech and greater government transparency. I read these out to the crowd and we staged a 12-hour sit-in in front of the People's Congress in Hu's memory.

On the eve of Hu's funeral, we marched again, and this time huge numbers gathered in the square. As the days passed, more and more people joined us. We pitched tents in the square and some students began a hunger strike.

On 19 May, the government declared martial law. The military were called in, but we had sheer numbers on our side. Our protest resonated with people from all walks of life, and millions blocked the tanks with makeshift barricades. We felt we had reached a historic moment and started to believe the impossible might be within our grasp.

By the evening of 3 June, Beijing was a people's city: there were no running buses and all street police had been removed, but the people had organised themselves and the city felt safe. We had no idea of the carnage we were about to witness.

That night, news reached us of troops opening fire on West Chang'an Street, a main road leading to Tiananmen Square. Some friends and I ran towards the street to find out what was happening. Soldiers were shooting at civilians and more followed the tanks on foot, also firing. People were lying wounded on the road and we tried to move them to safety. I hope I never see as many dead bodies as I saw that night. For years afterwards, I was traumatised by what I had seen and suffered nightmares.

In shock, I turned around and started running back to Tiananmen Square to warn my fellow students of what was coming. I remember reaching one of the main crossings and seeing a man in a white coat heading towards a wounded man. He put up his hand, shouting, "Don't shoot, I'm a doctor." They shot him anyway. As I passed one of the main road junctions, people were shouting, "Fascists!" "Murderers!" and some were shot.

I reached Tiananmen Square in the early hours of 4 June and joined the people clustered around the Monument to the People's Heroes. We were outnumbered by soldiers and faced tanks on three sides.

After a quick vote, we agreed to evacuate the square peacefully, but suddenly the square's lights went out. Soldiers rushed up the steps, driving us back with their guns and beating people with iron bars. Many protesters around me were trampled and injured while tanks rolled towards us. I was in shock and felt sick. I knew tanks were used against our enemies but, naively, I never imagined the government could turn them on its own people.

I tried to check if there was anyone left in the square's tents, but a soldier aimed his gun at me and I hurried away, my T-shirt stained with blood. I headed back to campus, cleared my room of sensitive papers but left my belongings behind, changed my clothes and fled the city. I travelled undercover across China, taking refuge in strangers' houses for months before attempting to escape into Macau. Captured at the border, I was jailed for 18 months in a series of provincial and national prisons. I was questioned for 16 hours a day and confined in a dirty, overcrowded cell, but I consider myself one of the luckier ones: 20 years on, some people I know are still in prison.

I finally escaped from China and was granted political asylum. I now live in London, where I am a PhD researcher on democracy and a volunteer for Amnesty International. I have managed to build a new life for myself and my family here, but the horrors I witnessed that day will be with me for ever.

• Do you have an experience to share? Email experience@theguardian.com

Shao Jiang

The GuardianTramp

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