Thirty Years Ago: “Troubles” At and After Tiananmen Square

This post is one I have mulled over for almost as long as I’ve been blogging, and that’s over 15 years–half the timespan between events related to the massacres in Tiananmen and the lesser-remembered Tianfu Squares, and now. I’ve delayed writing it, not just because it’s about some difficult and disturbing subject matter, but because if I were to write about this at all, I knew I needed to write with discretion, to do my best to shield a friend from China.

I have had many international friends over the years. Some were students, others a friend’s spouse; some immigrants, others refugees. They’ve come from every continent—except Antarctica!—and a range of generations. I’ve learned fascinating things from their personal stories while sharing coffee (or tea) and conversations, working with them or for them, or responding to their request for feedback on a project.

What the perfume district of Tehran was like in the era before Khomeini.

What life was like in the U.S. for a woman academic originally from the Middle East.

How tea tasters brew samples to grade the quality of tea leaf harvests.

Harrowing experiences on the open sea as a boat person escaping genocidal tyrants in Southeast Asia.

Cultural dynamics in South Asia among various castes and between different religious groups.

Ministry journeys that involved travel to every country in Central and South America.

Some of the changes during the early decades of post-colonial West Africa.

Punk rockers and missional ministers from Australia and other South Pacific islands.

Surviving the bombing of Coventry during World War II.

The prayer and devotional life of people who carried Bibles to believers behind the Iron Curtain.

What it was like to come of age during Mao’s cultural revolution, or around the time of Beijing Spring, or in the decade just before the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Which brings me full circle, back to this particular friend from China. Hopefully you can see from that rather random listing from around the globe that I care deeply about my friends, their stories, their cultures. So it should make sense that I found the Tiananmen events incredibly distressing. I’d had periodic correspondence with one particular friend for years before that event. But after Tiananmen, I didn’t hear anything … month after month after month.

I discovered there can be a great deal of angst in not knowing:

Have they been at all involved?

Is any Chinese citizen in jeopardy, simply for having been in the West?

Will I ever hear from them again?

There was also a great deal to learn about waiting and watchfulness.

How do we best pray for people under persecution?

What things must we do to protect others as best we can, to avoid putting them in danger?

How can we show solidarity with them when we cannot communicate directly?

Finally, something like six or seven months after the massacre, I received a letter from my friend. What a relief to see that distinctive penmanship and that international stamp!

My immediate response was to want to write back. But, to paraphrase Shakespeare, “Discretion is the better part of valor.” So I slowed myself down and devoured that letter, reading it time and again to see what I could discern between the lines.

Clearly, it was cautiously written. I recall one passing comment along the lines of, “There were some troubles recently but everything is all right.” That was before a section on various happenings workwise and otherwise. I took it as a veiled reference to the massacre and the widespread crackdown that followed.

What to do now, though? I felt my friend was telling me as discretely as possible that they’d come through this period of national trials, but the letter also had a tone to it of saying goodbye.

Sadly, I strongly felt I should not write back. Sometimes I’ve regretted not doing so, but overall feel that was the best decision in this sensitive situation.

And so, this 30-year milestone for Tiananmen brings forth a flood of emotions. I am thankful that my friend was safe—though our ongoing friendship was lost, and I doubt those lines of communication can ever be reestablished. I do find some degree of comfort in trusting that God holds all people in His hands and heart of providence.

And this post is my way of saying a goodbye now that I could not then …

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