Night is falling over Washington, D.C., and for Chai Ling, sipping lemonade at an outdoor café, the moment is bittersweet. Exactly one year has passed since the 24-year-old student, regarded as the heart and soul of China's democracy movement, witnessed the massacre of hundreds of students and workers by government troops in and around Beijing's Tiananmen Square. But for the moment, her thoughts dwell not on the crushed rebellion but on its tenuous hold on life. A few hours earlier, her tiny body buffeted by gusty winds, Chai had urged 1,000 supporters at a memorial rally in front of the U.S. Capitol to keep their dreams alive. Afterward, a crowd had rushed up to comfort her and hold her hands. "It was as if they had all pinned their hopes on me, and they were trying to protect me," she says. "It touched my heart very deeply."

Soft-spoken, frail, at times almost childlike, Chai Ling led the final contingent of protesters in their confrontation with Chinese Army tanks and troops last June 4, then spent a harrowing 10 months on the run in China, hunted by the government as the foremost of its 21 "most wanted" fugitives. In April she escaped to France. Now at the start of a three-week tour of the U.S., the woman who has become the symbol of hope for China's dissident majority has a simple message: "I want to open people's eyes to what is happening in my country. I want to say, don't forget those who died, and don't forget the people who are still suffering."

The oldest of three children, Chai was born in the northeastern province of Shandong; her parents were Communist Party members. While in high school, Chai was selected by the Central Communist Youth League as a "model student" because of her "good health, grades and moral character." It wasn't until she enrolled at Beijing University, long a center of student activism, that she became politicized. In early 1987, before starting graduate studies in psychology at Beijing Normal University, she joined the student movement during the first massive demonstrations for democratic reforms in nearly 40 years and began to question her pursuit of a career within the system. "I decided I had to do something, and I knew then that there would be risks," she recalls. Two years later Chai joined the April sit-in at Tiananmen. In mid-May she wrote an impassioned speech that became the manifesto for protesters who had started a week-long hunger strike and was promptly elected commander-in-chief of the movement.

On June 3 the bloodbath began. "I could hear bullets flying and people screaming," she recalls. "We climbed to the upper tiers of the People's Monument and could see the tanks lined up at the edge of the square. Then it was suddenly silent. We huddled together, holding hands and singing. We knew we might die, but we also felt that our sacrifice would be the most glorious moment in China's history." On the morning of June 4, the rebellion was smashed. "The soldiers used their guns and bayonets to hit us, trying to provoke us and give them an excuse to shoot," says Chai. "We didn't even curse them. It was only with total passivity that we were able to walk out and survive."

Hoping that others will be able to follow, Chai will not disclose details of her months in hiding and flight to freedom, saying only that she traveled from province to province, sometimes with her husband, Feng Congde, 24, more often exhausted and alone with only her fears. But she was buoyed by the hundreds of ordinary people who fed and sheltered her, many of whom knew her identity and risked their lives. "It showed me that nothing has killed the hope for a free life and a better future in the heart of every Chinese," she says. "The underground is silent, careful and waiting—but very much alive."

Though she and Feng, a former graduate engineering student, have been granted asylum in France, Chai's ordeal is far from over. Still tormented by nightmares, she has difficulty sleeping. She worries about her parents, whom she has not been able to contact. And she grieves for the 20 dissidents recently executed in China. After her tour of the U.S., Chai Ling plans to return to France. She knows she may be exiled for years, but she is sustained by her hope of returning one day to her homeland. "More than anything, my strength comes from love," she says, "a love for the Chinese people—and my poor, miserable country."