China’s Tiananmen generation-World Mag

May 23, 2009

The Tiananmen generation

Out of post-massacre despair, Chinese demonstrators learned not only that communism is crushing but that democracy alone cannot save

Jamie Dean

World Mag: June 6, 2009

Type “Tiananmen Square massacre” into the Chinese-language version of the popular Chinese search engine Baidu, and the first link leads to a video with this title: “The Myth of Tiananmen Massacre.” A subhead describes the massacre as “a popular Western myth,” and the video features a Chinese man claiming he saw no government violence against civilians in Tiananmen Square on the morning of June 4, 1989. Zhou Fengsuo tells a different story. The Chinese activist now lives in San Francisco, but he remembers the night he spent in Tiananmen Square with thousands of other university students gathered to demand freedom from Communist oppression during the spring of 1989.

With the 20th anniversary of the student uprising, Zhou soberly recounts the gunfire, tanks, and blood in the early morning hours of June 4 as the government-led People’s Liberation Army flooded Tiananmen Square and opened fire on thousands of unarmed students. The attacks by government soldiers killed unnumbered thousands and left thousands more injured.

Zhou witnessed the carnage firsthand as he fled Beijing on his bicycle after dawn. Many of the dead, both students and non-students, actually were outside the square, mowed down along street approaches to Tiananmen as the army tried to crash barriers to enter the square. At a nearby hospital, Zhou glimpsed dozens of young bodies piled outside. In the early morning light he recognized the face of a friend, and despaired. He never thought it would come to this.

“We were just numb,” says Zhou from his office in California. “In the capital of China in the year of 1989. It was such a massive killing in front of everyone. And the world was watching.”

Though the world watched—with the image of a lone man staring down a column of tanks near Tiananmen Square becoming one of the iconic images of the 20th century—the Chinese government denies that it ­happened: Even 20 years later Chinese officials call the bloody crackdown of 1989 “a political disturbance” of “counter-revolutionary hooligans” and claim civilians incited the violence. They offer no official death count but claim that deaths were few, and they never released an official total of arrests. Human-rights groups estimate officials arrested tens of thousands of protesters and dissidents around the country in the massacre’s aftermath.

Chinese textbooks don’t mention the event. Chinese censors block internet access to much information on the massacre. Government officials forbid state-run media from reporting about it. And in recent weeks, Chinese officials have jailed at least one dissident for speaking out against the military’s actions at Tiananmen Square—a common fate for outspoken opponents of the government.

Despite modern technology and the benefit of time and research, it’s possible that today’s Chinese students know less about the historic event than those of 20 years ago, when word of mouth spread news of the massacre like wildfire.

But if Chinese officials hope that Tiananmen Square’s significance will dim with time, human-rights groups are reminding the world of the massacre and outspoken eyewitnesses remain.

For Chinese Christians present at the Tiananmen Square massacre, the anniversary carries an added meaning: They remember one of the worst days in modern Chinese history as the turning point for the one of the most exciting trends in China: the unexpected growth of Christianity.

Bob Fu didn’t expect the student protests in 1989 to lead him eventually to Christianity. Now president of the Texas-based ChinaAid, an advocacy organization for Chinese Christians, Fu grew up in a grindingly poor family in the Chinese countryside. Though Fu says he wasn’t an atheist, he didn’t believe in the God of the Bible—few Chinese people did. Instead, Fu put his faith for societal change in a system: democracy.

He was enamored with Western ideas about freedom and undertook a bold plan to oppose communism: by becoming a communist. Fu says other students and intellectuals did the same thing. Some wanted to change the Communist Party from within. Others wanted to kill it.

By April 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations were sprouting up at universities around the country, and some students were already streaming to Tiananmen Square. The protests had begun after the April 15 death of Hu Yaobang, a former Communist Party leader ousted by party officials two years earlier. Hu had been sympathetic to political reform in China, a legacy students wanted to continue. Before the violent end, thousands of students would spend seven weeks in Beijing, peacefully calling for an end to Communist Party corruption and pleading for greater freedoms. Fu decided to join them.

The English major led the first protest in his university town and then led a group of a dozen students on a 12-hour train ride to Beijing. Arriving around May 22, Fu helped distribute food and water to the swelling crowds in Tiananmen Square and participated in a five-hour walk around the capital city. Fu says citizens—young and old—met the students with water and ice cream and words of support: “I was very, very moved.”

But trouble already loomed: Troops began to move toward the city, and Fu remembers waking up during the night at his campsite in the square to the sound of students calling for help building blockades to the approach of the city. Fu didn’t go. By May 29, his girlfriend (now his wife) grew sick from lack of clean water, and the couple left Beijing.

Meanwhile, disagreements roiled communist leaders debating how to respond to the student demonstrations: The party’s secretary general, Zhao Ziyang, expressed sympathy for the students. In response, his fellow leaders ousted Zhao and placed him under house arrest. He lived in forced seclusion for 16 years before his death in 2005, but he recorded hours of testimony about the weeks leading up to the crackdown. Zhao said the growing student numbers swelled communist leaders’ determination to end the demonstrations, even if it meant violence and death.

Back in the square, Zhou (the Chinese activist now living in San Francisco) spent days helping to organize medical stations, food supplies, and traffic control in the crowded square. Since students were scrambling to manage the unexpected crowds as they arrived, Zhou volunteered to help. But he also grew sick and returned to his university to rest on May 23. On the morning of June 3, he heard sobering news: Masses of troops were organizing near Beijing. The still-exhausted student climbed on his bicycle and pedaled four hours back to Tiananmen Square: “I knew this thing was about to turn.”

He arrived in the evening and spent the night near the People’s Monument in the center of the square. By 2 a.m., Zhou heard gunshots ringing. News from the outer edges of the 100-acre square began filtering to Zhou and his friends as ­soldiers began gunning down students.

From other vantage points in the square, the violence was even starker: Witnesses and foreign journalists reported that some 10,000 troops descended on the square, firing AK-47 rifles at unarmed masses. Other soldiers drove out students with the butts of guns. Buses exploded, students cowered on the ground for cover, and tanks rolled into the square: Some of the most brutal accounts reported tank operators plowing over civilians.

By dawn, soldiers had largely emptied the square, and Zhou pedaled past dazed and bloodied protesters. As he glimpsed dead bodies at the hospital, Zhou said his shock deepened: “For me, that was the first time I began to think, ‘Is there anything we can believe in?'”

The protest wasn’t over. The next day, with the military in complete control of Beijing, a lone Chinese man would deliver the most lasting image of the demonstration: The unidentified man carrying shopping bags stepped into the path of a column of four massive tanks near Tiananmen Square in a breathtaking act of defiance.

When the tanks tried to move around him, the man stepped in the way again. Bystanders were shocked as the man climbed onto the tank and talked to the driver. As the tank operator turned off the engine, an unidentified group of people whisked the impromptu protester away. Though speculation has swirled, the man’s identity remains a mystery and his fate unknown.

Chinese authorities forbid the publication of that image in China even today. Censorship is common and is particularly fierce on the internet, creating what experts call “the great firewall of China,” where authorities work to block user access to sites critical of the government using a sophisticated filtering system.

In a Freedom House report, China tied Cuba for last place out of 15 countries studied for online access. The report said the government often blocks foreign sites, but it notes other sites like Google have agreed to self-censor to satisfy government demands in China.

But even if Chinese officials censor images like the lone man facing the tanks, the moment was sealed in 1989: The world had witnessed the desperate defiance of a muted people against a crushing system.

For Zhou, the desperation was just beginning. While watching state-sponsored news in his mother’s home two weeks later, Zhou saw his name on the government’s list of the 21 most-wanted leaders of the Tiananmen demonstrations. His impromptu volunteerism in the square led to a one-year stint in a crowded prison packed with other students, with no formal trial. After his release, authorities sent Zhou to the border of Mongolia for another year of “reality education”—but mostly kept him in isolation.

In 1995, Zhou escaped to the United States to work with dissident Chinese, putting his hope in democracy. He soon grew disillusioned, finding that bitterness and personal ambition pervaded American communities, too. On June 4, 1995, feeling downcast on the sixth anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, Zhou wandered through San Antonio, Texas, alone. He wound up in a church service: “And that’s the first time I heard the gospel.”

Zhou says church members prayed for him, and one man kept in touch. “It was the first time I felt some connectedness,” he said, “that I was not alone.”

It took eight more years, and many encounters with Chinese Christians, before Zhou and his wife converted to Christianity in 2003. He says the disillusionment that began at Tiananmen Square led him to realize, “The real hope is not on this earth or in Beijing. It’s from Jesus, our Savior.

“Zhou says he’s not alone: He knows many other Chinese who converted in the wake of the Tiananmen massacre: “In my view, this was a pivotal moment in Christianity among the Chinese.”

Fu agrees. The former student leader also grew despondent after the massacre, even considering suicide. His hope in a system “was destroyed by tanks.” He realized: “The system is not reliable to change itself. And I don’t find hope in myself. Who can make the change?

“At his deepest point of despair, an American missionary teacher gave Fu a biography about a Chinese pastor. His conversion story moved Fu, particularly one statement he had never heard: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new ­creation.” Fu wrote it down. “I said, ‘That’s it—only the Creator can make the new creation I am dreaming to be.'”

Once a Christian, Fu quickly became pastor of an underground church and soon landed in prison for his activities and his faith. After his release, he fled to the United States with his wife. Fu says he knows many Chinese who converted after Tiananmen Square. Many realized, “The system cannot save you from the corruption of the heart.”

For many reasons, the growth rate of Christianity in China has exploded over the last 20 years. Experts cite rapid urbanization and a growing number of influential thinkers embracing Christ. OMF International (formerly China Inland Mission) estimates there are some 70 million Christians in China. The group says Protestant Christians in China numbered less than 1 million in 1949.

Despite rapid growth, restrictions remain for Chinese Christians. The government requires churches to register, but many don’t, choosing instead to remain “underground.” In May the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom included China in its list of countries of particular concern, reporting: “Religious activities are tightly controlled and some religious adherents were detained, imprisoned, fined, beaten and harassed.”

Zhou says the Chinese government can’t slow the growth of Christianity and believes as the church grows it will play “a crucial part in establishing freedom.

“It’s the connection between Christianity and freedom that drew Hong Yujian to Christian faith after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Hong, now a pastor in Vancouver, was studying chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania in 1989, but he says the violence that he watched unfold in Beijing from afar made him question his hope in science and democracy.

To understand why democracy works in America, Hong says he studied the founding documents. He was struck by the phrase: “all men are created equal . . . they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” “There’s nothing like this in Chinese thinking,” says Hong. “But if you cut out the Creator, you cut out the root of democracy.”

He says the massacre at Tiananmen helped him and others see their own sin and need for Christ: “I think God used it to pave the way and prepare the heart of the Chinese people.”

Hong, Zhou, and Fu signed a statement in May with 80 other Chinese Christian leaders, calling on the government to acknowledge the massacre, and expressing their own repentance. Fu’s group, ChinaAid, plans to sponsor a prayer service in Washington, D.C., on June 4 at the National Presbyterian Church to commemorate the 20th anniversary. More than two dozen Chinese human-rights and pro-democracy groups are planning a rally at the U.S. Capitol that morning. Other groups plan to rally near the Chinese embassy in the afternoon. Pro-democracy organizers in Hong Kong expect tens of thousands of people to descend on Victoria Park for an annual candlelight vigil on June 4, marking the only remembrance of the massacre in Chinese territory.

Former student leaders say the wounds remain raw after two decades, but Fu says God has used the evil for good: “We call ourselves the Tiananmen generation.”

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