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A brilliant dawning of global liberty

How the Tiananmen Square protesters enlightened the world
Tens of thousands of visitors crowd Tiananmen Square on the first day of the May holidays in Beijing, China, Friday, May 1, 2009.
Tens of thousands of visitors crowd Tiananmen Square on the first day of the May holidays in Beijing, China, Friday, May 1, 2009. | (Photo: AP Images / Ng Han Guan)

Thirty years ago, a brilliant new day dawned for liberty.  As with every 24-hour day, the new Day of Liberty began in eastern Asia, and then swept into eastern Europe and then to the rest of the world.  The 1989 Day of Liberty dawned with the awakening of transformative visions and hopes – creatively and profoundly expressed by many thousands of Chinese university students and other Chinese citizens at the giant Tiananmen Square at the center China’s capital city Beijing.  This magnificent “dawning” for liberty extended over 50 amazing days. 

Protests began on April 15, the day a former Chinese Communist Party General Secretary and reformer Hu Yaobang died at age 73.  Because of his years of courage and articulate defenses of more democracy, human-rights, free-market economics, and personal liberty, many considered Mr. Hu’s death suspicious.  After all, Mr. Hu had been forced to resign as General Secretary just two years earlier because of other party leaders’ fears of Mr. Hu’s ideas – fears that the Chinese people would be dangerously empowered.  Specifically, Mr. Hu was deemed too lenient with student protesters two years before, in 1987.  When Mr. Hu was coerced to resign at that time, he was also compelled to make a humiliating, public “self-criticism” of his “mistakes.”

Mr. Hu was therefore all the more honored among the many Chinese citizens desiring real protections for human-rights and personal liberties.  However, to try to restrict Mr. Hu’s influence even at his death, the government minimized his funeral.  Nevertheless, the public mourners lined up for ten miles to honor him!

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The protests in Tiananmen Square began on April 15 explicitly to honor Hu Yaobang and his human-rights ideas, to protest his suspicious death, and to urge a more appropriate celebration of his life and democratic values.  Moreover, the protests then continued in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere in China for the next 50 days – with thought-filled and creative efforts to open up a new and effective dialog with the national leaders – in order to strengthen human-rights, democracy, and liberty.  On some of those days, there were protests in up to 200 Chinese cities.   

What were the outcomes of these courageous protests?  For all freedom-lovers in the world, there were 50 days of profound admiration for the Chinese protestors and their message – along with grateful relief that the otherwise oppressive Chinese government was tolerating such dramatic and powerful free expression.  Tragically, that grateful relief was short-lived when on June 4 and 5, the so-called “People’s Liberation Army” (PLA) moved in and brutally massacred thousands of the courageous Chinese protestors.

Much of the world mourned this tragic loss of life, this silencing of brilliant voices for liberty.  Not surprisingly, there was also praise for the Chinese tyrants and the PLA – primarily from eastern European communist dictators.  In Romania, for example, the Stalinist-type tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu publicly praised the Chinese military action.  In appreciation, China sent a special emissary to honor Ceausescu at the Romanian Communist Party Congress in August 1989.  I had personally served as an underground missionary in Romania just three years before.  Therefore, I knew first-hand Ceausescu’s government’s evil oppression of his people, especially the Romanian citizens who were Christians.  When I read what Ceausescu said, my whole being deeply revolted at his nauseating praise of the Chinese tyrants and their tragic Tiananmen Square massacre.

Other eastern European communist tyrants also praised the Chinese tyrannical violence against the many human-rights-affirming protestors.  The East German communist parliament even unanimously passed a resolution supporting the Chinese Government’s violent suppression of protest, and sent a “good will” delegation of its top officials to Beijing to personally reaffirm their mutual tyrannical support against human-rights. 

Meanwhile, the wonderful people oppressed in eastern European communist countries became all the more disillusioned with their own tyrants – especially those praising China’s tyrants.  Courageous protests erupted in these countries.  Fueled by the people’s own deep, sincere longing for liberty and other human-rights, these new protests were now fully ignited by the riveting example of the courageous Chinese protestors. 

The results were very dramatic and profoundly visible.  Just previously, Poland and Hungary had switched to non-communist governments.  In East Germany, the human-rights protests grew in September and October 1989, in spite of explicit, public communist government threats of Tiananmen Square-type massacres against all demonstrators.  However, by the end of November 1989 the East German communist government had resigned!  Thank God!

In the meantime, November 1989 protests in Czechoslovakia grew in spite of equally violent threats by its communist tyrants.  The government collapsed and was replaced in December by long-standing, anti-communist human-rights advocates – including Alexander Dubcek and Vaclav Havel – both of whom had been severely punished for years for their vocal defenses of liberty and democracy.  Havel even became the new President, on December 29, and in a speech read around the world gave public credit to God for the renewed gift of human-rights.

Back in Rumania, dictator Ceausescu sought to ride out the neighboring tidal waves of resistance to tyranny.  In an attempt to further bolster his own political strength, he ordered people to gather on December 21 for a mass rally in his honor.  However, the crowds courageously booed and jeered the tyrant as he spoke, and the army itself began siding with the people.  Soon the dictator was arrested, along with his wife, Elena.  They faced a brief trial and their televised execution before the end of December 1989.  1989 was a great year for liberty. 

At the same time, liberation came to Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Albania.  In most of these national transformations, the primary courageous leadership came from Christian men and women who had earnestly prayed and strategically prepared for a restoration of God’s gifts of human-rights – especially the precious two rights to life and liberty, both rights so consistently hated and violated by communist tyrants.

In the immediate Chinese context, the human-rights campaign in 1989 was crushed.  But the example set by the brilliant, creative, courageous Chinese protestors hugely helped to transform eastern Europe.  In addition, they inspired others around the world with renewed love of all God’s precious gifts, especially those of life and liberty.

Now at the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Protests, we believe that the deaths of those brave Chinese protestors were not in vain.  Deep appreciation for their courageous efforts on behalf of life and liberty will live forever in the hearts and minds of liberty-loving people everywhere.

Paul de Vries,, is the president of New York Divinity School, and a pastor, author, and speaker.  Dr. de Vries is a specialist in Biblical hermeneutics and ethics, and he is a life-long advocate for Biblical Activism.

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