Though Tiananmen translates as “The Gate of Heavenly Peace,” the Beijing city square is known for something utterly destructive: the June 4, 1989, massacre where Chinese troops fired on nonviolent student demonstrators, killing thousands—deaths that the government still has not publicly acknowledged. Current Issue June 2019Subscribe
The historic event came amid a national movement for democracy and freedom and set off a spiritual awakening for the Chinese, according to sociologist Yang Fenggang.
Among the young activists who stood in Tiananmen Square 30 years ago were Zhang Boli and Zhou Fengsuo. Both landed on China’s most-wanted list, were imprisoned, fled the country, and live in exile. The pair are also among at least 4 of the 21 most-wanted student activists to come to faith in Christ, with Zhang serving as the pastor of Harvest Chinese Christian Church, a multisite church with locations around the world, and Zhou leading Humanitarian China, which advocates on behalf of political prisoners in his homeland.
“Of the Tiananmen Square student leaders who have converted to Christianity, they tend to see evangelism as the priority,” said Yang, director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University. “A priority of their social activism is humanitarian aid to people in China or exiled in the US, including political dissidents, human rights lawyers, and Christian leaders who have been persecuted for their leadership in the house churches.”
Zhang and Zhou’s historic involvement gives them a unique perspective on the Communist government’s crackdown on China’s growing house church movement, whose leaders were inspired by the Tiananmen activism decades ago.
“We may forget that there was this Tiananmen moment of hope, but for the future of China, it’s so important to remember,” Zhou said. “Commemorating is a way of resistance.”
This month’s 30th anniversary of the massacre offers the global church a chance to consider the spiritual significance of the ongoing fight for basic freedoms and human rights.
“With theological reflections, we can strive to be better prepared for future social activism and social transformation,” Yang said. “Without theological depth, social and political movements will only bring more chaos, violence, and bloodshed.”
Yang—who projects the country will be home to more Christians than any other by 2030—wants to see evangelicals partner more closely with the house churches operating outside of China’s government-sanctioned Three-Self Patriotic Movement.
Zhang and Zhou (the former responding through a translator) talked to Jenny McGill about how their Christian faith spurs their fight for freedom. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Take us back to Tiananmen Square. What happened in your life that led you to participate, and what did you hope the outcome would be?
ZHANG: I was a writer and wanted to go to Tiananmen Square to record the events and turn it into a book. I was also a student at Peking University and joined the other students who were going. I was a speaker at the square and led others in a hunger strike.
We wanted to commemorate [former general secretary of the Communist Party] Hu Yaobang’s death. The government thought we were being unruly, and we disagreed with this depiction. We wanted democracy, freedom, and human rights respected.
ZHOU: It was a gradual process. I started as a participant and went with my friends in the same dormitory. We were the first ones to openly commemorate Hu Yaobang, the party leader who lost his post for being sympathetic with students a few years before. When he died, that triggered the whole event, the protests.
China was much more open at that time. [The Chinese] were looking out to the Western world for ideas, new technology, people, everything. There were broad discussions in public. I really loved to read the history of America. I was inspired when I was learning English and reading the Declaration of Independence and the story of Abraham Lincoln. In that generation, we were very much in love with the idea of freedom and democracy for China. Our two most immediate demands were freedom of the press and the disclosure of the assets of the government officials. … These were very popular, gaining support of the Chinese people very quickly. That’s why it spread out like fire into the whole society all over China.
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