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Chaplain remembers Tiananmen Square on anniversary

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (June 05, 2010) -- It was 21 years ago, June 4, 1989, that Americans watched footage on television of a line of tanks in China's Tiananmen Square stop just short of running over a student protestor who was bold enough to stand in their path.

That day, known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, was the last of a nearly two-month long series of protests by Chinese students and citizens, who were unhappy with the communist Chinese government's policies. They wanted freedom.

Chaplain Yan Xiong, in Iraq, in 2004. Xiong, now a captain in the U.S. Army, and stationed at the Warrant Officer Career College at Fort Rucker, Ala., was one of the students that took part in the protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989. (Photo courtesy of Chaplain Yan Xiong)

Chaplain Yan Xiong, now a captain in the U.S. Army, and stationed at the Warrant Officer Career College at Fort Rucker, Ala., was there in the square. In fact, he was one of the students that kicked off the protests.

"I was the first man to stand out and make a speech," Xiong said. That was April 19, 1989. "Then I was studying at Beijing University law school. We organized a self-government of students. Independent of the communists. That is the first independent student organization. So then we have a demonstration. Every day we would go to Tiananmen Square."

Xiong said that at the time, he was young and idealistic. He wanted to make a difference. And his youth propelled him forward -- because he said he was too young yet to have fear.

"At 23, as young men, we just wanted to do something," he said. "We had no fear. We didn't think about the results, or what would happen. We didn't think of that. We just needed freedom, freedom of association, freedom of expression, freedom of religion. We just had the courage to do what we wanted to do."

On May 13, Xiong and other student leaders initiated a six-day hunger strike. He was among the student leaders that negotiated with Prime Minister Li Peng, in Beijing, to end the strike.

When June 3-4 rolled around, tensions at Tiananmen Square were high, and the military was called in. Xiong said there were many deaths, and that the numbers vary from place to place. He carried bodies to the hospital, and says more than 3,000 were killed, though the communist government claims it was only 500 who had died.

"The Chinese government has beautiful propaganda," Xiong said. "They say 'we are a government of the people, we are serving the people, we are the best government, we love the people.' We are young students and we believed that -- until they opened fire."

Less than 10 days after the massacre, Xiong said, his name and the names of other students, were blacklisted -- on TV, in the papers, on fliers. He was captured just hours after he was named by government officials as one of the 21 "most wanted student leaders."

By June 14, he was in Qincheng Prison, just outside Beijing. That was a facility for political prisoners, built in 1958 with the assistance of the Soviet Union. He would serve 21 months there. He said at the prison it was constant confinement, no fresh air, no meeting with other people. It was, he said, books, anger, and faith that he was not in the wrong that carried him through.

"At that time, I'm 23 years old," Xiong said. "Full of energy -- angry -- ambitious. We would read a lot of Chinese literature and poetry. And we had anger. We wanted to do something for the future, and we had confidence we did nothing wrong -- because we are not criminals."

It was after leaving Qincheng Prison in January 1991 that Xiong first encountered the faith that would change him from political prisoner in China to Army chaplain in Alabama.

"Two months later, about the middle of March, there happened a miraculous opportunity. I met a young man by chance who was an underground church member," Xiong said. "He had brought with him many sources of spiritual nutrition, including the word of God, the Bible."

Xiong said for many months he struggled with the Bible, studying it and other Christian spiritual books, trying to gain a better understanding.

Chaplain Yan Xiong, now a captain in the U.S. Army, and stationed at the Warrant Officer Career College at Fort Rucker, Ala., was one of the students that took part in the protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989. He and his wife have two children. (Photo courtesy of Chaplain Yan Xiong)

"After several months of this daily study time, a miraculous thing occurred within me," he said. "I would no longer believe ... as I had been taught that religion was superstitious and that human beings were evolved from monkeys, which is the Communists' view."

By June 1992 he was fortunate to be smuggled out of China, to Hong Kong. And it was not long after that he arrived in the United States, as a political refugee. He first set foot in the Los Angeles airport June 16, 1992, two weeks before the 4th of July.

"I went to a park and celebrated that first 4th of July celebration," he said. "I saw American people, their beautiful smiles. They were relaxed. The park was clean. The fresh air. The dog. It was a really free society. Compared with China, where they are scared. They watch people, have fear there. That is the real freedom of American people: there is no fear in their heart. They can relax, they can smile. They can have ideas and an open mind. It is really different from Chinese society. That is freedom."

In the next 19 months, Xiong was baptized into Christianity. "After I became a Christian, I knew the real freedom, from God," he said.

He also opted to defend American freedom, and enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving time as a personnel specialist at Fort Jackson, S.C. That was a decision driven partly by anger from what he had seen in China, partly by his desire to better learn English, and partly to serve America.

"Freedom is not just a word," he said. "it means to contribute, to do something for the world and make other people free, that is what freedom means."

Xiong served 19 months in the military as an enlisted man and was able to leave the Army to return to school, ultimately serving a total of 8 years in the Reserve component.

After his departure from the Army, Xiong attended school, eventually graduating from the Gordo-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts. In 2003, he accepted a commission into the Army, this time as an Army chaplain. Since then, he has served a tour in Iraq, beginning in March 2004.

"When I serve with Soldiers, especially in Iraq, we really knew our Christian faith -- it really works, it makes sense," he said. "Especially in the battlefield -- I do my best to encourage the Soldiers to share the faith."

Xiong is married to a Reserve Soldier, and the two have two children, 12-year-old boy and 10-year-old girl.

This week Xiang was in the nation's capital to meet with lawmakers and to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. He spoke Thursday evening in Falls Church, Va., about his experience in China and his spiritual journey.

While at this time hhe is not allowed to go back to China, Xiong said that were he allowed to go back one day to that country, he would bring faith to those there he says need it most.

"The main thing they need, of course, is they need food," he said. "But they need the truth. They need the gospel. They need to know Jesus Christ as their Lord, so they can turn into the truth, to God. That is what they really need, the Chinese. Otherwise they live in darkness. If I can do that, I want to be a preacher -- to go back as a missionary."