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What can Tiananmen Square teach us now?

A protester stands in front of a backdrop showing Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989 during a candlelight vigil at Hong Kong's Victoria Park June 4, 2011, to mark the 22nd anniversary of the military crackdown of the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square.
A protester stands in front of a backdrop showing Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989 during a candlelight vigil at Hong Kong's Victoria Park June 4, 2011, to mark the 22nd anniversary of the military crackdown of the pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square. | (Photo: Reuters/Bobby Yip)

Thirty years ago, from the world stage of Tiananmen Square, the world witnessed some of the largest, most dramatic, most creative, most passionate demonstrations of support for natural human rights.  For seven weeks, April 15 to June 4, gifted university students, articulate journalists, passionate workers, compassionate grandparents, and many others expressed the longings of their hearts for liberty, democracy, a free press, other human rights, and the abolition of government corruption.  These expressions of deep human longings resonated on many days in concurrent demonstrations in as many as 200 cities in China and in the rapt attention of 100s of millions of people watching on TV news broadcasts around the world.

Then came the crackdown, starting with a martial law declaration on May 19.  At first the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) refused to move against the demonstrators.  The “people’s” army was initially dissuaded by the people – of course! – through gifts of cups of hot tea, honest conversation with citizens, and copies of news reports on the current issues, written by courageous, temporarily liberated journalists.  However, when the government leaders threatened to execute army generals who did not move with force to shut down the demonstrations, the PLA attacked, overran, and massacred thousands of their fellow citizens.

The world responded quickly.  The leaders of fellow socialist dictatorships gave open support to the Chinese government, publically “justifying” the horrific violence against defenseless citizens.  In contrast, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher expressed “utter revulsion and outrage” at the “indiscriminate shooting of unarmed people” and threatened to discontinue normal business with Chinese authorities.  The Netherlands froze diplomatic relations with China.  Universally, ordinary Americans were deeply revulsed by and profoundly angry at this brutal attack against unprotected, peaceful demonstrators and against the basic human rights of liberty and justice. 

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However, our President George H. W. Bush merely announced a suspension of military sales to China – even though there were no sales agreements with China at that time, anyway!  President Bush also communicated to the Chinese leaders privately that this vicious military action murdering thousands of unarmed civilians was strictly a Chinese “internal affair.”  Even the impending state visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen to Washington DC was neither canceled nor even postponed! It proceeded as scheduled on June 12, barely a week after the brutal massacre of thousands of articulate Chinese human-rights demonstrators. “Now is the time to look beyond the moment to important and enduring aspects of this vital relationship for the United States” was President Bush’s chilling perspective.  He considered it “realism” to effectively ignore even an enormous human-rights catastrophe!

Far more encouraging were the devoted responses of oppressed citizens suffering under eastern European dictatorships.  They were inspired first by the positive, liberty-loving messages from Tiananmen Square and then were awakened to action by their own dictators’ endorsements of the brutal murders of thousands of peaceful Chinese demonstrators.  As a result, courageous eastern European citizens soon overthrew their own socialist dictators and boldly proclaimed liberty in their nations within the next six months, as I described in an earlier essay.

So, are there any ongoing lessons from those historic 1989 events in Tiananmen Square for us now in 2019?  Absolutely!  And here are three:

First, it remains a huge, memorable sign of international hope that a love of democracy, liberty, and other innate human rights can grow, be strong, and even stimulate inspiring, creative expressions – even among people who have not yet been nurtured or enculturated into the love of liberty and other human rights.  The Tiananmen Square demonstrators gave the rest of the world a dramatic confirmation that all people are created equal and are truly Divinely endowed for life, liberty and other elemental, natural rights. 

Second, here was one of the many reminders that the United States of America, so blessed by God, has an extraordinary purpose in the world.  We did not invent natural human rights, but our founding documents and our developing history are a uniquely powerful testimony to their reality.  We did not fabricate liberty, but our Statue of Liberty is a profoundly inspiring symbol of a primeval longing in all people.  Thirty years ago, the tyrants of China falsely accused the Tiananmen demonstrators of trying to import American values – because many of the demonstrators’ posters were in American English.  The 1989 demonstrators had also designed and created a 30-foot temporary statue with a stunning resemblance to our giant Statue of Liberty in the harbor of New York City, my town. 

However, these precocious human rights cannot be dismissed merely as “American values” – because they are Godly values and firmly rooted in Biblical teaching long before the birth of the USA.  Consequently, it was a huge national failure for our top elected American leaders to not speak on behalf of the demonstrators’ humanity.  America and China would both be better off now if our national leaders had spoken with moral clarity and courage in 1989. 

We sing “God Bless America,” but it is time for America to bless God by bearing a stronger witness to the precious value and inborn rights that our Creator designed into every person, in every nation.

Third, we are reminded that the Divine endowments for democracy and human rights are taught and demonstrated especially by evangelical movements – both in China and in the rest of the world.  In America, for example, the evangelical First Great Awakening significantly paved the way for the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.  Then the evangelical Second Great Awakening greatly paved the way for the Abolition of Slavery.  Gospel influence is huge in shaping our historic core Judeo-Christian values in America – especially in how we see the innate worth and rights for every person. 

In China, the temporal order is different, while the Gospel theme is similar.  The socialist tyrants sought to kill the 1989 profoundly spiritual awakening to liberty, but they unintentionally and significantly paved the way for the explosive growth of the evangelical Church in China – one of the most stunning growth spurts in all of Church history!  At the time of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, there were 12-million Christians in China.  A mere thirty years later, there are now over 150-million Christians, and the Church is also the chief Chinese defender of human rights. 

China’s evangelical churches are the vibrant counter-cultural force in brilliant, dramatic contrast with the ruling tyrannical socialism.  Besides, often at great risk to their own liberties, Christian attorneys in China regularly defend Chinese Constitutional religious liberties for Buddhists and Falun Gong followers as well as for fellow Christians [].  Could this liberating witness of the Gospel help explain why President Xi is so hostile to evangelical Chinese people and Churches – now including hostility even to the evangelical “official three-self” Churches that are compliantly displaying his portrait on their walls?

Time and future developments – especially in China – doubtless will give us additional perspective going forward.  However, because of the Tiananmen Square demonstrators,

  • We have even greater confidence in the Divine source of our natural human rights for all people;
  • We can be renewed in our American calling to bear clear and courageous witness to the Creator’s gracious gifts of human natural rights to all people; and
  • We can be renewed in our appreciation of the transforming power of the whole liberating Gospel – soul Gospel and social Gospel – and the active, powerful relevance of evangelical Churches. 

It is time to fully appropriate and more actively engage these three timely teachings!

By God’s grace, may we learn well and act wisely on these three opportune lessons that can further bless our families, our nation, and the world.

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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