From Tiananmen to Hong Kong

It was a highlight of my career as a news reporter, interviewing Shengde Lian, one of the organizers of the Tiananmen Square protests. Now it seems that piece of history from 1989 is repeating itself in Hong Kong today.

Inspired by student protests in America and South Korea they had seen on television, Chinese college students gathered in Beijing at Tiananmen Square to mourn Hu [Yaobang], their advocate for democratic reform. The marathon sit-in lasted seven weeks.

[In Tiananmen Square, protesters crafted a goddess of liberty akin to our statue in New York’s Harbor. ]

Demonstrations weren’t unheard of in China, but the international broadcast of such demonstrations was. The international press was in town to cover [Mikhail] Gorbachev’s visit to Beijing. Because of his attempts to reform communism, the protesting Chinese students considered him a champion of democracy.[i]

The presence of the international press made possible our knowledge of the Tiananmen Square massacre. [There were other crackdowns at the same time across the country.] In front of the international media, the Chinese government, having lost face in the weeks’ long standoff, sent the army into the square, killing thousands and capturing surviving protesters. [Lian served 18 months in a laogai–the Chinese equivalent of a Soviet gulag.]

. . . The Chinese students . . . did not get the change they had hoped for, but change is what China would see. The Beijing massacre and imprisonment of surviving demonstrators prompted Chinese youth, especially students, to look for a new form of freedom. Many found that freedom in Christ.

Why did young Chinese college students suddenly develop a passionate interest in the Christian faith? David Aikman writes that one “suggestion was that China’s traditional Confucian view of man as inherently good was shattered under the tanks that rolled onto the center of Beijing.”[ii]

The Chinese students had put their faith in their government, and their government turned on them and attacked them. Now they would look elsewhere for someone to trust. Within the next ten to fifteen years, China is on track to become the most Christian nation in the world.[iii]

Hong Kong is very different from Beijing. Crosses hang on the exteriors of hospitals to signify their connection to churches. When the British left Hong Kong to the Chinese in 1997, they left behind the stamp of a Christianized culture. They left behind an understanding of basic freedom.

After the 1997 takeover, China discovered in Hong Kong what free enterprise could do. The “communist” government adopted capitalistic practices–with the military owning some companies.

The Mainland economy grew in leaps and bounds. China was building a middle class (without a minimum wage and with a flat tax, by the way, a graduated income tax having been foundational to Marxism.)

In 1997, the communist government in Beijing promised Hong Kong citizens “one country, two systems.”

Kayla Wong and Emily Lo provide an account of a Chinese woman waving the British Union Jack. This woman is not calling for a return to British colonialism but to the practices that helped Hong Kong prosper under the British.

She says Hong Kong has a 20-year history of government’s unkept promises.

Protesters also dare to wave the US flag. And while we are divided over gun control, they are asking for a Second Amendment.

Will Christianity see a resurgence in Hong Kong as is happening in the mainland? That remains to be seen.

China has not sent troops and tanks into Hong Kong–yet–although the military is amassing on the border and engaging in exercises designed to intimidate. All the while, the Hong Kong police show no mercy to the protesters.

Oppression suppresses free speech. An already eroded promise threatens the freedom that remains.

Perhaps China and Hong Kong are at a crossroads. Perhaps the events that unfold in Hong Kong in the coming days will determine whether there is freedom or continued oppression.

Only one King is faithful to His word. Pray for Hong Kongers and Chinese to find that King. Pray for peace and freedom found only in Him.

*****

This post is partially excerpted from Restoring the Shattered.

[i]Nicholas D. Kristof and Special to the New York Times, “China’s Hero of Democracy: Gorbachev,” archives 1989, accessed May 14, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/1989/05/14/world/china-s-hero-of-democracy-gorbachev.html.

[ii] David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2003), 171.

[iii] Tom Phillips, “China on Course to Become ‘World’s Most Christian Nation’ within 15 Years,” London Telegraph, April 19, 2014, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/10776023/China-on-course-to-become-worlds-most-Christian-nation-within-15-years.html.

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Accord in Action

In 1978, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II, the first non-Italian pope in 456 years. Not only was he not Italian; he was from Poland, a country where the government despised the Church. This new pope was different. Younger than any other pope in the previous century, he had survived the Nazi occupation only to endure Soviet oppression. He knew the suffering that is oppression, and it infused his ministry with vivid colors.

When Wojtyla was in Rome becoming the new pope, Billy Graham was in Poland preaching from Wojtyla’s pulpit, having come at Wojtyla’s invitation. No other Polish Catholic leader would agree to invite Graham, and he couldn’t go without an invitation. Graham would later preach in Orthodox and Reformed churches, a Jewish synagogue, and an Orthodox monastery during his European travels.[i]

Wojtyla and Graham had planned to get together during Graham’s visit, but Wojtyla’s call to Rome for the papal election delayed their meeting.[ii] Before Graham’s arrival, Wojtyla had been overseeing a “radical partnership” between a Catholic youth renewal movement and Campus Crusade for Christ.[iii] His work to light local flames of faith in the young kindled a global bonfire he could never have imagined.

In 1979, the new pope returned to his homeland where more than one million Poles lined the streets to welcome him and millions more came to hear him.[iv] Lech Walesa, firebrand of the Solidarity movement in Poland, told Peggy Noonan in 2002 that “we knew the minute [John Paul] touched the foundations of communism, it would collapse.” Walesa credited “heaven and the Holy Father” as most responsible for destroying communism in Poland.[v]

The pope’s visit to Poland was a tiny pebble dropped into a steaming pond. The resulting ripples turned into a tidal wave. When Mikhail Gorbachev became the Soviet premier, he saw the handwriting on the wall in Poland and began to implement reforms across the Soviet Union. He hoped to save communism by reforming it.[vi]

But by then, the cracks in the foundation of communism were too deep. Ten years after the pope’s return to his homeland in 1979, the Berlin Wall fell along with the Iron Curtain. The ripples of reform and freedom in Eastern Europe would reverberate across the globe.

Nineteen-eighty-nine was also the year Hu Yaobang died in China. Hu was a high-ranking communist official in the People’s Republic. He had fallen out of favor with party power brokers because he supported reforms, loosening controls on the press and the people. Inspired by student protests in America and South Korea they had seen on television, Chinese college students gathered in Beijing at Tiananmen Square to mourn Hu, their advocate for democratic reform. The marathon sit-in lasted seven weeks. Demonstrations weren’t unheard of in China, but the international broadcast of such demonstrations was. The international press was in town to cover Gorbachev’s visit to Beijing. Because of his attempts to reform communism, the protesting Chinese students considered him a champion of democracy.[vii] The presence of the international press made possible our knowledge of the Tiananmen Square massacre. In front of the international media, the Chinese government, having lost face in the weeks’ long standoff, sent the army into the square, killing thousands and capturing surviving protesters.

Eastern European Christians would ultimately see freedom. The Chinese students, on the other hand, did not get the change they had hoped for, but change is what China would see. The Beijing massacre and imprisonment of surviving demonstrators prompted Chinese youth, especially students, to look for a new form of freedom. Many found that freedom in Christ. Why did young Chinese college students suddenly develop a passionate interest in the Christian faith? David Aikman writes that one “suggestion was that China’s traditional Confucian view of man as inherently good was shattered under the tanks that rolled onto the center of Beijing.”[viii] The Chinese students had put their faith in their government, and their government turned on them and attacked them. Now they would look elsewhere for someone to trust. Within the next ten to fifteen years, China is on track to become the most Christian nation in the world.[ix] The new wave of freedom that started in Catholic Poland ultimately sparked an explosion of evangelical Christianity halfway around the world. Pope John Paul II helped ignite that spark.

John Paul II began his papacy by hoping to visit his Catholic homeland. A faithful prayer warrior, he no doubt prayed for the people of his native land. The echoes of his first trek to Poland resonate around the world and into eternity. Christianity and the call for freedom have gone hand in hand throughout history because Christianity is the truest form of freedom. It frees us from the bonds of sin and points us to eternal concerns and away from irrelevant earthly ones.

The more freedom and opportunity we have, the more God expects of us, but it seems that the more personal comfort we have, the less we do for each other. In America’s large cities, our neighborhoods are more alienated than ever. Fear, anger, and misunderstanding separate us. Many of us feed a selfishness that wants to gain comfort others already have. Some of us just want to hang on to our own level of comfort.

Historically, as Christianity emerges in a hostile society, Christians have come together to further the gospel. Pope, now Saint, John Paul II and Billy Graham showed us the difference accord can make in oppressed nations like Poland once was. But accord is also apparent in oppressed China.

I had the blessing of meeting one of the Chinese student protesters who turned to Christ after Tiananmen Square. I asked him about separation within the Chinese church. “Denomination is not important in China,” was his reply.


[i] Grant Wacker, America’s Pastor, 203.

[ii] The pope would later visit with Graham in Rome multiple times, and the two corresponded through letters. When John Paul died, Graham said this pope had been the “most influential voice for morality and peace in the world in the last 100 years.” Michael Ireland, “Billy Graham: Pope John Paul II Was Most Influential Voice in 100 Years,” CBN.com transcript of CNN’s Larry King Live, broadcast April 2, 2005.

[iii] David Scott, “The Pope We Never Knew,” Christianity Today, April 19, 2005, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/may/13.34.html.

[iv] Peggy Noonan, John Paul the Great: Remembering a Spiritual Father (New York: Penguin, 2005), 26.

[v] Ibid., 30–31.

[vi] Ibid., 31.

[vii] Nicholas D. Kristof and Special to the New York Times, “China’s Hero of Democracy: Gorbachev,” archives 1989, accessed May 14, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/1989/05/14/world/china-s-hero-of-democracy-gorbachev.html.

[viii] David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2003), 171.

[ix] Tom Phillips, “China on Course to Become ‘World’s Most Christian Nation’ within 15 Years,” London Telegraph, April 19, 2014, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/10776023/China-on-course-to-become-worlds-most-Christian-nation-within-15-years.html.

Excerpted from Nancy E. Head’s Restoring the Shattered. Get your copy here!

Photo Credit: Churchpop

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you credit the author.

Disclosure of Material Connection:  I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the entities I have mentioned. Restoring the Shattered is published through Morgan James Publishing with whom I do share a material connection. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”