BEIJING (AP) – Twenty years after China’s military crushed dissent around Tiananmen Square, the details are still fresh in Qi Zhiyong’s mind. The acrid smell of tear gas. The people run down by tanks. The dizzying pain when a bullet tore through his left leg.

The student-led protests in the heart of the Chinese capital had gone on for weeks, an extraordinary call for political freedom and an end to government corruption. Sparked by the April 15 death of a beloved Communist Party chief deposed by hard-liners, they were mostly peaceful, even after martial law was declared on May 20.

But late on June 3, 1989, the government lost its patience.

“I saw people being run over. Blood sprayed everywhere,” says Qi, then a 33-year-old construction worker. “The tanks kept moving, as if the people weren’t there. My hair stood on end. I was chilled to the bone.”

Witnessing the crackdown and losing his leg transformed Qi from a loyal Communist Party supporter into an activist with a simple goal: speaking out about the events which the leadership has all but erased from history.

His efforts cost him his job, his wife and his freedom. But a newfound Christian faith and pure doggedness have kept him going.

“The young generation, they eat hamburgers and wear famous brands. But when June 4 is mentioned, they only have a very vague understanding of what happened,” Qi says.

The government has never offered a full accounting and has made virtually all public discussion taboo.

Those who break the silence are shut down by authorities. Zhang Shijun, a former soldier who took part in the 1989 crackdown and called for a reassessment of the bloodshed, was detained last month after giving an interview to The Associated Press. His status is unknown.

Over the years, Qi, a handsome, square-jawed man who walks with the help of metal crutches, has given interviews to foreign media and overseas rights groups. He has been detained many times. Security agents follow him and keep watch over the 135-square-foot home he shares with his second wife, their 12-year-old daughter and another family in southwest Beijing.

Qi says he and his family are forced by state security to leave the capital during sensitive periods such as last year’s Beijing Olympics, when the government wanted to showcase only the country’s good side. Last month, Qi says, his freedom was already being restricted ahead of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen protests. Security agents warned: “Behave yourself. Sooner or later, you will be imprisoned this year, even if you are disabled.”

Right after his leg was amputated, Qi says, he often wore shorts to show off his scars and told his story to anyone who asked. He says his state-run company, which laid him off because of his injury, offered him 100,000 yuan ($27,000 in 1989) in exchange for his silence on how he lost his leg – a proposition he refused.

Qi’s tale unfolds between sips of green tea and puffs of cigarettes. His voice is deep, the words drawn out. At one point, he breaks down in tears.

The demonstrations began when students put up posters praising deposed chief Hu Yaobang and indirectly criticizing the hard-liners who forced his resignation. Within days, tens of thousands of students surged past police lines and filled Tiananmen Square. The protests soon spread to other cities.

In mid-May, students began a hunger strike at Tiananmen, forcing the government to move a welcoming ceremony for visiting Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev to the airport. The numbers in the square and surrounding streets – including workers and farmers – swelled at several points to 1 million.

The afternoon of June 3, Qi was riding his bicycle to work south of Tiananmen Square when he saw people running and smelled tear gas.

He saw two male students carrying an injured female student, who screamed in pain. People on bicycles delivered messages to the demonstrators about tanks and armored carriers moving toward the square.

Around 11 p.m., Qi says, he followed his co-workers back to Tiananmen to see the 33-foot-tall “Goddess of Democracy,” a Statue of Liberty lookalike unveiled days before by the protesters.

The scene had changed.

Tents, which had housed thousands of protesters for weeks, were empty or had collapsed. A young man rode up on a bike, his body covered in blood, saying that soldiers had opened fire and killed people in the Muxidi district, west of Tiananmen.

Qi, nervous and suddenly cold, said he wanted to go home, but his friends were intent on seeing the statue.

“I realized there were soldiers all around, with rifles, helmets and dark glasses,” Qi says. “I was frightened because I had seen such scenes only on TV, in movies about German fascists.”

The tanks were moving down the Avenue of Eternal Peace, Beijing’s main thoroughfare, flattening guardrails “like they were noodles,” Qi says. Qi ran through a warren of alleyways near the square, trying to find somewhere to hide. Riot police wearing helmets and boots and carrying shields as tall as a man marched in groups.

Near the Zhongnanhai compound, where China’s leaders live and work, Qi saw squads of soldiers standing guard. In a macabre dance, the unarmed men in the front row crouched, the ones in the back fired their rifles and the front row popped back up.

A truck covered with canvas came into view. Soldiers, their sweat-soaked uniforms a deep green, jumped off the truck and advanced three in a row. People fled in terror down an alleyway.

“The next thing I saw was people falling one after another. Then I fell,” Qi says, grimacing as he recalled the dizziness and pain of being shot. He describes how he pushed aside the person who had fallen on him as blood from his left leg stained his red shorts and pooled on the ground. The screams of other people were loud in his ears.

“I don’t remember what I was thinking about. The whole world seemed like it had disappeared,” he says. “Even as I used my hand to cover the wound, I thought to myself, ‘It’s all over.”‘

A passer-by bound Qi’s wound with his white shirt while a woman broke the wooden door off her home for use as a stretcher. “Hey, you’re handsome! Are you married?” Qi recalls the woman joking, apparently trying to distract him from the pain.

When they got to the nearest hospital a few miles (kilometers) away, it was shut. An old man who answered the door said they had been ordered to close the day before.

At another rescue center, harried doctors turned him away.

Qi finally was put onto a small bus going to the Xuanwu hospital, which he reached five hours after he was shot. Volunteers began moving him to the mortuary when they saw the extent of his injury. “I’m not dead yet!” Qi shouted.

In a blood-spattered surgery room, doctors worked for hours. His leg was amputated first up to his knee, then halfway up his thigh 10 days later.

Now, his family survives off the monthly 340 yuan ($50) his old construction company sends him and the 800 yuan ($120) his wife makes working part-time. He says he has high blood pressure, diabetes and heart problems.

He has found God in a country run by an officially atheist government. He peppers his speech with “Amen!” and “praise God!” and attends Catholic services at an underground church.

“I want to thank the Communist Party. Because at the beginning I trusted them. … Then I was shot, my leg was amputated and a new me was born,” says Qi. “I’ve cleaned my mind of those old Maoist thoughts.”

There are days Qi says he feels like his leg is still there, whether it’s an itch or an ache. On a recent trip to Tiananmen Square, he is pensive. A few Chinese tourists pose for pictures.

He stares out the window, his eyes sad as he thinks of the upcoming anniversary.

“Although today is a good day, tomorrow might be cloudy,” Qi says. “I’ve started to feel the pain in my leg again.”

AP-ES-04-11-09 1315EDT

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