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When their pro-democracy demonstrations met a violent end, several survivors turned to Christianity for comfort. Thirty years later, more Chinese worshippers are following suit

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June 5, 1989: A Chinese man stands alone in front of a line of tanks in Beijing, where pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square faced a violent crackdown by the government. It was the country's biggest political upheaval since the Cultural Revolution more than a decade earlier.Jeff Widener/The Associated Press

When Qi Zhiyong thinks back on the night violence descended on Tiananmen Square 30 years ago, his mind brings him back to the bloody unravelling. The moment the lights were turned off. The sight of tanks and armoured cars circling. The sound of loudspeakers warning students to leave. The warning from the man who cried, “they’re killing people!” The crippling sensation of bullets piercing his own skin.

Mr. Qi’s body still bears the mark of that day. Both of his legs were amputated as a result of injuries sustained on June 4, 1989.

Less visible is the change the shooting brought to his soul.

“I was raised to believe in our government, but the government shot me in my legs,” he says. After June 4, “a lot of people lost confidence in the education, policy and ideology of the Communist Party. People no longer had any beliefs.

“As a result, they rushed to church.”

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Qi Zhiyong, shown in 2009, was injured in both legs during the Tiananmen protests.ROBERT J. SAIGET/AFP/Getty Images

In the months and years that followed the Tiananmen violence, people across China sought solace and guidance in churches and temples, propelling a trend of religious adherence that has altered the social fabric of a country whose leadership remains officially atheist.

Chinese authorities have for 30 years mounted an intense effort to eradicate the memory of the Tiananmen crackdown, purging it from the country’s internet and maintaining an authoritarian vigilance of students, workers and activists to ensure protests never again sweep the country.

But the spark of spiritual interest that spread following 1989 has been one of the more lasting legacies of the student uprising, religious historians argue, a change that has altered the country despite the government’s ambition to condemn Tiananmen to the forgotten past.

Western scholars estimate the total number of Christians in China today at roughly 70 million – some 23 times the official number of Christians in 1982. A surprising number of modern China’s most outspoken critics – human-rights defenders who carry on some of the students’ calls for change in the country – are Christian.

Tiananmen was not alone in driving people to Chinese places of worship. Religious experts say other moments of tumult and dislocation had a similar effect, including, over recent decades, China’s conversion to a competitive market economy with its attendant subversion of state social welfare guarantees.

”But in the aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre, groups of mainland Chinese went to church,” says Fenggang Yang, a scholar at Purdue University who is a foremost researcher of the spiritual development of China.

He travelled through China in the 1980s and the 1990s, and the change between those two decades was profound, he says. Churches that were once half-empty and attended by the elderly in the 1980s grew so full with young people in the 1990s that they ran out of space. He recalls people gathered outside the front steps for Sunday services, unable to find room inside.

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A believer reads the Bible during mass at St. Joseph's Church, a government-sanctioned Catholic church in Bejing.THOMAS PETER/Reuters

In Beijing, churches moved from a single Sunday service to “three and even four” services in the 1990s, and then eventually five in a day, says Xu Yonghai, a pastor who leads a small weekly service in his modest apartment in the capital city. “There were so many people that they had to find ways to accommodate those people.” He himself first went to church in 1989.

At least four of the 21 student leaders declared “most wanted” for their roles in 1989 became Christians, according to Prof. Yang.

June 4 became “a turning point, in that our previous belief system was more or less based on patriotism and worship of ancestors,” says Zhou Fengsuo, who was number five on the list.

“The massacre at Tiananmen, I think, destroyed that connection for a lot of us. This was the moment we began to search in our hearts – is there a God? Is there truth? What can we do? Many influential Christian leaders in the house church movement today were converted after 1989.” (House churches in China operate outside officially sanctioned religious structures.)

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May 30, 1989: A portrait of Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square looks out at the Goddess of Democracy, a statue erected by students who modelled it on the Statue of Liberty.Jeff Widener/The Associated Press

Christianity held other attractions for students who had sought democratic reforms in China. Some saw Christian ethics as inseparable from Western political values. At Peking University in the 1990s, Yu Jie didn’t attend church, but did begin to read through the Bible. “Most of our discussions at that time focused on the civilization aspects, for example, the connection between the democratic system and Christianity,” he says.

A prominent dissident author and critic, he became a Christian in 2003.

The Tiananmen protests themselves were religiously agnostic, motivated by philosophical ambition and demands for societal fairness, in keeping with the character of a country that worshipped Mao over divinity. Historian Timothy Brook’s Quelling the People, one of the most definitive histories of the movement, makes no reference to church – or even to God – although it clearly describes how 1989 formed a division point in China’s modern history.

“The Beijing Massacre was the last straw breaking the thin bridge of trust that, until June 4, still stretched between the government and its people. It has changed everything,” wrote Prof. Brook, who is the Republic of China Chair at the University of British Columbia.

“Many people, including those still living in mainland China, have gradually realized that the problem of China is not caused by one or two people,” says Yu Houqiang, who was a student leader in 1989. “It’s the absence of belief.”

In the wake of the protests, Mr. Yu, who now lives in Toronto, adopted a pantheistic spirituality, calling himself both Christian and Buddhist.

Soon after Tiananmen, other factors also emerged to draw people to Christianity. Pastor Xu, for example, recalls rural women in the 1990s seeking religious community as an escape from isolation in traditional marriages.

The Chinese state, as well, has encouraged some forms of spiritual observance, particularly of Daoist practice, with its use of meditation and nutrition to enhance personal wellbeing.

At the same time, authorities across China have overseen a sweeping process of “Sinicization” of religion, which has included tearing down crosses, breaking up house churches, removing domes from mosques and, in the western Xinjiang region, instilling fear that praying or possessing a Koran could be grounds for internment.

Even in Beijing, “for me, going to church has become a luxury. A lot of churches are gone,” says Mr. Qi, the man who lost both legs after the Tiananmen violence. He speaks from the back of a police car, as authorities attempt to constrain the movements and conversations of people ahead of the 30th anniversary.

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Baptist cleric Chu Yiu-ming, one of the key organizers of Operation Yellowbird, which smuggled Chinese dissidents out of China after the Tiananmen protests, poses after an interview at a church in Hong Kong.JAMES POMFRET/Reuters

Yet the country’s Christians continue to grow in number, Western scholars believe. Among the faithful are a small group that can be counted as some of the most direct successors of the student protesters of 30 years ago – human-rights advocates still willing to publicly critique Chinese society and exercise of power.

Christian observance is surprisingly prominent among Chinese human-rights lawyers, many of whom have become prominent figures because of a sweeping crackdown that has seen some jailed and tortured in recent years. Roughly 15 per cent of the 300 people caught up in a 2015 crackdown on the legal profession are Christian. Five of nine people subsequently sentenced to jail were Christian, according to a human-rights lawyer who spoke on condition of anonymity, because the Chinese government has barred the person from speaking with foreign media.

Some were drawn to the profession by Tiananmen. “After June 4, a group of human rights lawyers suddenly appeared, and they accepted cases of ordinary people,” says Liu Fenggang, a church activist who spent three years in a Chinese prison for his advocacy. He now lives in Fort St. John, B.C.

“These lawyers choose to believe in God out of a sense of justice,” says Mr. Liu, who remembers walking in downtown Beijing, seeing tanks, soldiers and bloodied people – and smelling gunpowder. He was baptized Nov. 19, 1989.

”What the government did in that year disappointed a lot of Chinese people,” he says. “And this provided Christianity enough space to develop.”

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