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Free at last

The 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre finds many leaders of the protest now laboring for Christ

Free at last

Chai Ling in Tiananmen Square on May 28, 1989 (Chip Hires/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Thirty years ago on the predawn morning of June 4, 1989, tanks rolled down the streets of Beijing to Tiananmen Square, where tens of thousands of students had gathered for weeks pleading with the government for reform and democracy. The People’s Liberation Army opened fire on crowds of Beijing citizens who tried to block the troops, killing protesters, bystanders, and even residents inside their apartments. At 5 a.m., troops forced students off the square, sending tanks to pursue the retreating students and beating those who stayed behind.

A declassified U.S. cable placed the death toll at between 500 and 2,600 with up to 10,000 injured.

The Chinese government has never acknowledged the massacre or rescinded its judgment that using force was justified. As the 30th anniversary approached, China took the precaution of blocking all language versions of Wikipedia, as the Chinese-language version and individual Wikipedia pages—like the one on the Tiananmen Square massacre—are already censored. Officials also sent dissidents on forced “vacations” to ensure the massacre is forgotten in a country of 1.38 billion people.

And yet, June 4 changed the course of Chinese history. It revealed the true face of the Communist government, unafraid to murder the best and brightest in the country for control. The disillusionment of Tiananmen also led many survivors of the massacre to find hope in Jesus Christ.

A surprisingly large number of protest leaders have become Christians since 1989, including Chai Ling, Zhang Boli, Yuan Zhiming, Zhou Fengsuo, and Xiong Yan, who is now a U.S. Army chaplain. (Many more people who watched the massacre unfold in person or heard of it through Western media point to the massacre as a turning point in their testimony.)

Here are the stories of three leaders who went on to find physical freedom in the West, as well as true freedom in Christ.

Shaun Tandon/AFP/Getty Images

Shaun Tandon/AFP/Getty Images

CHAI LING, commander in chief of the Defend Tiananmen Square Headquarters: Chai, a graduate student at Beijing Normal University in 1989, first became involved with the democracy protests because of her then-husband and fellow student leader Feng Congde. As Chinese officials ignored the students’ demands, she advocated a student hunger strike. While few were on board at first, she gave a rousing speech on the Peking University campus that encouraged 220 students to join her in the strike. 

Later she became the commander in chief of the Defend Tiananmen Square Headquarters, where she was in charge of supplying food, shelter, water, sanitation, and medical care to the tens of thousands of people in the square. Early on June 4, she and the other leaders linked arms and led the demonstrators to retreat.

As two of the government’s 21 most-wanted, Chai and Feng escaped by train to Wuhan, where she recorded a statement describing the massacre at Tiananmen. The message was later widely broadcast by Voice of America. A network of devout Buddhists helped the couple hide from authorities for 10 months, and they eventually reached Hong Kong after being smuggled in a cargo box aboard a boat. 

Chai and Feng escaped to France, yet their marriage fell apart as Feng left her for other women. Chai recalls in her autobiography, A Heart for Freedom, that she was filled with rage toward the Chinese government, sorrow from being separated from her homeland and abandoned by her husband, and guilt for surviving the massacre. She attended graduate school at Princeton but afterward found that finance companies wouldn’t hire her due to fears it would hurt their access to the Chinese market. She had to change her name and promise to halt her democracy activism in order to get a job.

She married Bain & Company partner Robert Maginn and started her own tech company, Jenzabar, which provides universities with learning management systems. In 2009, she met Reggie Littlejohn, a Christian who started Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, an NGO that works to end forced abortions in China. Littlejohn gave Chai a copy of The Heavenly Man by Paul Hattaway and Brother Yun, the testimony of a Chinese evangelist, and the book impacted her deeply. Through conversations with Littlejohn, Chai professed faith in Christ.

She was able to forgive those who wronged her, find freedom from survivor’s guilt, and finally discover an answer to the question of why the massacre happened: “The Tiananmen event was a milestone in God’s redemptive plan for China,” she wrote in her autobiography. “He allowed evil to happen—the massacre—to kill our belief in the Communist system.” Chai went on to create All Girls Allowed, a Christian ministry also focused on helping Chinese mothers who are forced to abort their babies.

YUAN ZHIMING, scriptwriter of River Elegy: Yuan joined the Chinese army in 1973 before going on to get a master’s in Marxist philosophy at Renmin University. While working on his doctorate, he began writing articles in newspapers and magazines advocating for greater reform. In 1988, he wrote the script for River Elegy, a popular six-part TV series that noted the decline of Chinese traditional culture and urged China to open up to Western culture. After June 4, the Communist Party blamed the TV series for provoking the student protests and sought to arrest those who worked on it.

A wanted man, Yuan hid in China for a month and a half before escaping to Hong Kong and moving to Paris. Yuan and other democracy activists set up the Federation for a Democratic China. Yet he witnessed infighting and power grabs within the diaspora democracy movement, and he felt disillusioned.

Yuan accepted an invitation to become a visiting scholar at Princeton, and during his stay, a Chinese student invited him and his friends to a “party,” which actually turned out to be a Bible study. Seeing overseas Chinese singing, jumping, and clapping to worship music seemed strange to Yuan, as it reminded him of the enthusiasm with which people praised Chairman Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution.

After that first Bible study, Yuan’s friends stopped attending, yet he decided to keep going because he liked the warmth and the love of the people. “This is something I had never seen in mainland China,” Yuan said in a recorded sermon. “Among the intellectual elites who think they are noble and want to save the country and the people, there has never been this kind of atmosphere or vitality.”

Liu Heung Shing/AP

Tiananmen Square, June 1989: A rickshaw driver pedals the wounded to a nearby hospital. (Liu Heung Shing/AP)

His new friends encouraged him to read the Gospels. While reading the Sermon on the Mount, he encountered a baffling passage: Jesus called His followers to love their enemies and pray for them, as God causes the sun to shine on the good and evil. Suddenly he began to understand God’s unconditional love, something so countercultural to everything he knew. He recognized his own sin and his need for a Savior and professed faith in Christ in 1991.

Yuan attended seminary, worked at the Chinese-language Christian magazine Overseas Campus, and started the ministry China Soul for Christ. He also went back to creating documentaries, including China’s Confession, about seeing traces of the gospel in Chinese history, and The Cross, about Christianity’s long history in China. The documentaries, along with his recorded sermons, were widely spread in China. Pastor Wang Yi, the imprisoned pastor of Chengdu’s Early Rain Covenant Church, noted that watching The Cross was a major influence that led him to profess faith in Christ.

Yet in recent years Yuan has been tangled in controversy. Chai said that in 2011, she approached Yuan to tell him that she had forgiven him for raping her in 1990 while they were both students at Princeton. Yuan insisted that while he had committed “extramarital sexual iniquity” with Chai before becoming a Christian, he did not rape her.

After his continued denials, Chai made the allegations public, saying Yuan had invited himself over and showed her a pornographic film. She says that when she asked him to leave, he pushed her on the floor and raped her. Still denying the rape, Yuan stepped down from China Soul for Christ in 2015.

A year later, a GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) investigation reported that in 2013, Yuan invited a 23-year-old intern to his hotel room to watch a pornographic film, embraced her for two or three minutes, and asked her to stay the night. Five people corroborated her story, yet again Yuan denied any wrongdoing.

ZHANG BOLI, deputy of the Defend Tiananmen Square Headquarters: Zhang was a journalist before attending Peking University for a writer’s training program in 1989. During the protests, he founded the News Herald, the first nongovernmental newspaper in 40 years. The night before the crackdown, he announced the creation of Tiananmen Democracy University.

After the massacre, he escaped north to his home province of Heilongjiang, while his wife and young daughter stayed behind. Zhang was No. 17 on the most-wanted list and hid in the homes of relatives and close friends—some of whom were high-level cadres. While staying at the home of a childhood friend’s relative, his illiterate host asked him to read her a copy of the book of John, and he was moved reading about Jesus.

Zhang decided to escape across the border to the Soviet Union. Yet after crossing into the Soviet frontiers, he became caught in a heavy snowstorm and wolves began to circle. For warmth, he jumped into a bale of hay inside a shed. Certain of death, he started to pray, promising that if God saved him, he would give his life to Jesus.

The next morning Russian peasants found him, even though they only came to the frontier region once a month. They sent him to the KGB, which interrogated him, held him for a month, and then quietly dropped him off back at the Chinese border.

For the next year and a half, he lived in a small hut in the secluded woods by the Heilongjiang River, where he hunted, tended a field, and had minimal contact with friends in the area. In 1991, a friend and a sympathetic policewoman helped him escape to Hong Kong, where he found out from a news article that his wife had divorced him.

Zhang was granted asylum in the United States, yet doctors soon diagnosed him with severe kidney cancer. During this time, his church friends often came to visit him and he was baptized. After recovering, he attended seminary and is now the pastor of Harvest Chinese Christian Church, which has locations in Virginia, California, New York, Philadelphia, and Singapore.

“Many student leaders professed faith in Christ because we went through great hardship,” Zhang said. “Our desire to shape the future of China was crushed and we realized there was a limit to what we could do. … After believing in God, we finally found the right path to take, rather than leaning on our own understanding.”

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Brother Yun’s name and to note Paul Hattaway as the co-author of The Heavenly Man.


Ng Han Guan/AP

Ezra Jin (Ng Han Guan/AP)

Four others who found Jesus after Tiananmen

Pastor Ezra Jin: A Peking University student during 1989, Jin noted that after the massacre, the despair and rejection he felt led him to place his hope in Christ. He went on to pastor Beijing Zion Church, one of the largest unregistered churches in Beijing before officials shut it down last fall.

Gideon Cheng: Cheng, who joined the student protests in Chengdu, came to study in the United States after Tiananmen as he felt his political zeal “put out by cold water.” In search of something to believe in, he professed faith in Christ after experiencing love from Chinese Christians in the States. Today he is the head of Overseas Campus’ evangelism ministry.

Andrew Hancock/Purdue University

Fenggang Yang (Andrew Hancock/Purdue University)

Purdue sociology professor Fenggang Yang: Yang was studying in the United States when he heard about the Tiananmen Square massacre. As a Marxist, he began to fear the consequences of atheism: If there is no God, what will stop people from killing each other? Through prayer and conversations with Christian friends, he professed faith in Christ. Today he is a leading expert on Christianity in China.

Bob Fu: Fu led students from his university in Shandong province to Tiananmen Square to protest. Afterward, police investigated him and forced him to write confessions. In his misery, a classmate handed him a biography of a Christian pastor, which led him to accept Christ as his Savior. Today he is the founder of China Aid, an organization that helps persecuted Christians.

June Cheng

June Cheng

June is a reporter for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and covers East Asia, including China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Follow June on Twitter @JuneCheng_World.


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  • JimVC
    Posted: Fri, 05/24/2019 04:05 pm

    The caption on the fourth picture should read "A rickshaw driver pedals the wounded...", not "peddles."

  • Web Editor
    Posted: Fri, 05/24/2019 05:29 pm

    Thank you for pointing out the error. It has been corrected.

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Tue, 06/04/2019 03:22 am

    A great report on some of the leaders of the Tiananmen Square massacre. I didn’t know that so many became Christians. God works in mysterious ways!