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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.”
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.