Remembering the Tiananmen Square massacre

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, the 12th of June. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary  Reichard. In the spring of 1989, tens of thousands of Chinese students and pro-democracy protesters gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. They demanded sweeping economic and social change. Popular support was high, both in China, and abroad.

EICHER: But in late May, the government declared martial law and began cracking down on the protesters. Then, in the early morning hours of June 4th, army troops stormed the Square, firing indiscriminately, killing many. The massacre effectively brought to an end hopes for democracy.

REICHARD: Now 30 years later, China ignores and hides the story from its people. Last week, events all around the world commemorated the anniversary with candlelight vigils and renewed calls for freedom.

But Tiananmen Square symbolized more than political change. The protests awakened a spiritual hunger the government hasn’t been able to contain.

WORLD Radio’s Paul Butler has our story.

AUDIO: [Sound of Hong Kong commemoration]

PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: Last week, as many as 180,000 people gathered in and around Hong Kong’s Victoria Park to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre.

AUDIO: [Sound of Hong Kong commemoration]

Other, smaller events marked the anniversary all around the world. On June 4th, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution commemorating the victims.

MCCAUL: 30 years ago today the so called People’s Liberation Army turned their guns on the people of China, killing hundreds—and possibly thousands—of unarmed civilians in Beijing.

Congressman Michael McCaul is the top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee.

MCCAUL: The dramatic days of May and June, 1989, left the world with many indelible images. The huge expansive Tiananmen Square packed with hundreds of thousands of people rallying for freedom. The 30-foot-tall goddess of democracy statue built by Beijing art students in the center of the square. The rush of tanks and armored personnel carriers into the area to quite literally crush the protest and protesters on June 4th. The heroism the next day of someone only the world knows as the tank man, who halted an entire column of Chinese army tanks…

Today, those images are suppressed in China: Nothing more than a footnote in history books. So McCaul said the House resolution was an opportunity to keep its memory alive and condemn ongoing human rights violations.

MCCAUL: Dictators need to understand that freedom can only be held back for a finite period of time. They may succeed in crushing a democratic protest, but they will always fail to crush the democratic spirit.

For 30 years, resolutions and commemorations like these have focused on human rights, freedom, and democracy. But there are some who consider an even more important legacy of the Tiananmen Square protest.

FENGGANG: I think the 1989 democracy movement triggered the search for spirituality or spiritual answers to the questions the young people had.

Fenggang Yang is a professor at Purdue University. He’s director of the school’s Center on Religion and Chinese Society.

FENGGANG: They realized the political democratization, liberalization will not be happening. And they asked many questions, and those questions cannot be answered simply in politics or economy. So they began a spiritual search.

Yang says there were many reasons for those spiritual questions. Some arose from purely political interests: students perceiving that most democracies around the world were countries with Christian majorities. They wondered how Christianity contributed to democracy.

But others had more basic reasons for asking similar spiritual questions:

FENGGANG: In the market economy, there is greater uncertainties in life. and many young people who were struggling in the market economy…sought religion, sought Christianity to answer their existential questions. So that’s another reason that Christianity grow very fast in the 1990s.

NEWSCLIP: Good evening. We all knew it couldn’t go on forever, but no one thought it would come to this…

In 1989 Yang was a visiting scholar in Washington, D.C. He watched the news with great interest as the protests grew.

NEWSCLIP: China is a nation at war with itself, as a result, the world is a much different place tonight.

FENGGANG: The massacre really made me suddenly realize the terror of atheism—atheism as the ruling political party…

The events that June 4th shook his faith in communism and the Chinese government.

FENGGANG: The decision to send tanks into the Tiananmen Square, that really shook me and made me think about issues of life and the death and think about religion…

Thirty years after the Tiananmen Massacre, Yang is unsure of the lasting political outcomes of the tragedy. But, he says the spiritual legacy is certain.

FENGGANG: The 1989 demonstrations and the massacre is a turning point that triggered the search for religion among the people, people of all walks of life. And since 1989, the increase of the number of Christians is dramatic and continuous.

Today the Chinese government is finding more and more ways to control its people. The recent crackdown on the church in China is just one more example of their move to totalitarianism, but the lessons from the Tiananmen Square Massacre give Professor Yang hope—that what the government thinks will silence dissenters, may in the end make Christianity’s growth all the more dynamic.

FENGGANG: Nobody had really anticipated that would happen…after 1989, the fastest growing religion has been Christianity. That is the most important legacy of 1989 demonstrations and the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Paul Butler.

REICHARD: The audio recording of last week’s Hong Kong commemoration came from WORLD’s East Asia Correspondent June Cheng. 

Candles for Tiananmen by June Cheng
Free at Last by June Cheng


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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