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Tiananmen Square, A ‘Watershed’ For Chinese Conversions To Christianity

Chinese paramilitary police march on Tiananmen Square after the flag raising ceremony on the June 4 anniversary of the crushing of the 1989 pro-democracy movement centered on the square in Beijing, China. (AP)

Monday marks the 23rd anniversary of China’s 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. And Professor Fenggang Yang of Purdue University has an observation about that day. He says many dissidents who led that movement have become Christians. In fact, he says 1989 was a watershed year for conversions, which led to “a quiet spiritual revolution,” among many Chinese, who equated Christianity with modernity. Here & Now’s Robin Young spoke with Yang, and the interview is excerpted below.

Mao had always associated Christianity with western imperialism. How did it come to symbolize modernity?

In 1989, people [found] the Communist belief system could not really provide the things that they want[ed] and they began to look for alternatives and Christianity is the alternative to many young people.

Why weren’t more traditional faiths satisfying these spiritual needs?

There are people who have gone into Buddhism. Buddhism remained the largest religion in China. But what’s interesting to me is the intellectuals. Since 1989, many of them have turned to Christianity instead of Buddhism. And especially for those who strive for democracy, who strive for modern society, they see Christianity [as] the foundation for their individual life and perhaps for the kind of social institutions they desire.

“After [Tiananmen], I felt that I was a homeless person in terms of spirituality. I want[ed] a spiritual home… Christianity made the best sense to me.”
– Professor Fenggang Yang, a Christian

You converted to Christianity after you moved to the U.S. in 1989 to become a visiting professor at Catholic University. Why did you convert?

I’m from an atheist background. My father was a Communist revolutionary who joined the Communists during the Second World War.

For me, it took a long way to reach the point to become a believer. I was looking for something. In college, I studied politics and education, but I found them not that interesting. So I turned myself to poetry and the literature, but then I didn’t find the satisfaction, so I then turned to philosophy. And when I studied western philosophy, I realized that so many western philosophers talked about God. I had no idea that philosophers could believe in God.

That really led me to religion, I began to study religion. But really after [Tiananmen], I suddenly felt that I was a homeless person in terms of spirituality. That was a very painful period for me. I want[ed] a spiritual home. When I looked for the different religious traditions, Christianity made the best sense to me, so I converted.

You study other believers, and you recently looked at a group of young Christians, many participated in Tiananmen, and they meet at McDonald’s for Bible study. Why McDonald’s?

The significance of McDonald’s is not the restaurant itself, it’s really more of a symbolism, a connection with the global world. It also symbolizes a rational, efficient modern type of business.

Several of [the young believers] told me the story that they even had a Bible study at a McDonald’s for a long time. [But] according to the Chinese policy, doing anything religious outside of the church would be considered illegal.

One day the local police rounded up [those participating in Bible study] and asked them to pledge [to] never do that again. The leaders of the Bible study wrote down on a form, “We promise we will never do this again at this McDonald’s.” But there are plenty of other McDonald’s.

Are Christians in China involved in politics?

Overall in the U.S., the Chinese American Christians are evangelical, they are apolitical. In China, the vast majority of them are evangelical and they have very little interest in politics. But when their rights of worship [are] violated, they hold onto their rights and fight back now.

There is a rise of civil rights lawyers, human rights lawyers. Interestingly, a significant portion of them are Christian. And these Christian lawyers fight for the rights of those marginalized people in China. Would you call this political? They may say, we are really not political, but we just want to have our basic rights that are guaranteed by the Constitution.


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  • J__o__h__n

    Religion and McDonald’s are the opiates of the masses.

  • Kumar

    I found the discussion very interesting. It reveals that whatever political system we live under, the individual is left to find meaning and purpose for their existence. Even for those who make it their goal to deny this quest for meaning, they themselves try to seek it in this denial.

    Thank you for the open and honest discussion of the subject.

  • James McKee

    This is awesome. 

  • Newshound620

    Ms. Young, the Chinese people who convert to Christianity from Communism are just trading one set of chains for another. Christianity has always fought against Modernity even to this day.

    • J.

      Interesting discussion, but I disagree with the idea that Christianity is a set of chains. Some read the Bible as a list of things you should or should not do, but when you come to understand Jesus and what he did for us, you want to do things that give glory to God and find disdain for things that are selfish and sinful. Being freed from the chains of sin is a joyous feeling. If not chained by sin, why else would we do the thing we know we should not do that are harmful to ourselves and others?

  • Richardwilsoh

    Robin,why is it that when you talk instead of listen to the people you interview,you always sound like you were the one person who was at the place and do not let the true person speak.You often sound as if you had walked right out of the battle scene or been the person who was there ,when in reality you are just reading script,I wish you could back off and let the story be told by whom you are interviewing,I know it is your show but not always your story.

  • http://www.BreakingIndia.com/ Media Watch

    “US public media’s subtle promotion of Christianity in China on one hand and calling Chinese Buddhist revival as “political” on the other hand. The difference in tone of the two stories is instructive” … “While it is claimed to be apolitical in this recent interview w.r.t Christianity, NPR’s earlier coverage of religion in China insisted that revival of Buddhism and native faith in Goddess Mazu is essentially political.” – discuss: 

    NPR’s coverage of Religion in China from 2010 - http://www.npr.org/series/128644059/new-believers-a-religious-revolution-in-china

Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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