This year marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. What are you doing to celebrate?
For those too young to remember, 1989 was a remarkable year. At the start of the year, the shadow of a nuclear war between the world’s two superpowers, the USA and USSR, was as dark as ever; at the end of the year, the Soviet Bloc was all but gone. It was a year of revolution and hope.
What happened? The short and simplistic answer is the Soviet Union ran out of money. (A better answer was given by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, see below.) Having bankrupted themselves with Communism, the Soviets were no longer able to impose their military might on Eastern European countries.
Poland and Hungary were the first to realize this. In the spring of ‘89, Poland held free elections, Hungary tore down its electrified border with Austria, and the Soviets did nothing to stop them. It was a stunning act of nonintervention that led to the liberation of 40 million people.
Before you knew it, other countries such as East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria, had followed suit and come out from behind the Iron Curtain. And then on one dramatic evening in November, this happened:
The Berlin Wall opened and then fell and 40 years of Soviet terror and nuclear brinkmanship came to an end. The Cold War was over. To quote one observer it was the end of history. Authoritarianism had lost, and liberal democracy had won.
What does this have to do with me?
In May 1989 I was fascinated by the events unfolding in communist countries. In Tiananmen Square, 100,000 students gathered outside the Great Hall of the People in a protest against corruption. I wanted to join them. Like those students I was young, inspired, and I had just finished exams. By going to Beijing I believed I could make a stand for freedom. I’d help make history.
With two weeks of vacation in front of me, I started making plans to join the protest in Beijing. However, the Lord told me very clearly not to go. I was disappointed. I got hit with a big dose of FOMO. But the wisdom of the Lord’s restraint was revealed a week or so later when, on June 4, 1989, the Chinese government sent in the armored vehicles and killed hundreds, if not thousands, of workers and protesters in parts of Beijing.
By the grace of God I had not been killed by the PLA, but I wept for the people of China. Freedom was breaking out around the world, but in Beijing the iron fist of Communism was tightening.
At the end of 1989 I finally did make it to China. I smuggled Bibles across the border, I rode the hard sleeper across the country, and I got to visit Tiananmen Square during the period of martial law. I also got to share the Bible with underground Christians and debate economics with dyed-in-the-wool Communists. It was a life-changing experience.
After three weeks I left China, but China didn’t leave me. A few years later I moved to Hong Kong, became a permanent resident, and put down some roots. For ten years I had the privilege of pastoring a bi-lingual church and leading Chinese people to Jesus.
I hope you will indulge me for posting a different sort of article, but I have my reasons. They say those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. In Chinese schools today, there is very little mention of the “June 4, incident.” Many people deny it even happened. I want my kids and your kids to know that the freedom we enjoy is not a sure thing, and that others have died in the pursuit of it, especially in Eastern Europe.
I know some today are worried about terrorism and trade wars, but thirty years ago the world was a darker place. If we are freer now, it’s because of brave Poles and Hungarians who acted and one courageous Russian who didn’t. Unlike his predecessors and Chinese counterparts, Mikhail Gorbachev did not send in the tanks when the flowers of freedom began blooming in Warsaw and Bucharest, and thank God he didn’t.
This week I will be remembering the students and workers who were suppressed for daring to make a stand. The protesters did not prevail in 1989, but China did begin to change. With possibly 70 million Christians, Communist China has become one of the world’s largest Christian nations. And it’s all thanks to those Bibles I smuggled into the country.
Of course, I’m kidding. But I do believe the gospel that brings freedom is bringing freedom to China and many other places. (Sidebar: Did you know that Escape to Reality has readers in restricted access nations such as Syria, Iran, Oman, Pakistan and, Saudi Arabia?)
Many people look back at 1989 as a year of unfulfilled promise, and they have a point. But there is still much to be thankful for. Consider this statistic: When the Soviets ruled Eastern Europe, they killed as many as 12-20 million Christians. How many Christians have been executed since 1989?
For sure, Christians are still persecuted in many parts of the world, including China. But there can be no doubt that in the last three decades the world has become more free, especially in Europe. In the day-to-day busyness of our lives we may not appreciate the long march towards liberty.
Yes, we still have a long way to go, but this week is a good opportunity to remember how far we have come.
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